Florida inmate William Demler said that since 2012, he has spent $569.50 on digital music through a proprietary digital music service sponsored by the Florida prison system. Demler listens to his music on a jail-supported player that he bought for $99.95. Demler, who is serving a life sentence, said the ads for the prison-supported service promised access to his music for the rest of his incarceration.
But last year, the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) changed music vendors, and as a result, Demler. delete access to your music collection. They told him that he would have to buy the same songs again using the new system if he wanted to listen to them.
So Demler is sue FDOC, arguing that the prison system broke its promises and violated the US Constitution by confiscating his music without compensation. He is seeking class-action status, allowing him to represent every inmate in the Sunshine State who has lost access to the music.
“You will always have yours”
Many states restrict inmates’ access to basic technology products, then charge extra for low-quality property choices. Last year, we covered the terrible video calling products being offered in some prisons. The Florida prison system has taken a similar approach to music.
Florida inmates aren’t allowed to own digital media players, and they can’t buy music from mainstream online music stores. Instead, the Florida prison system cut a contract with a private company to provide custom-designed media players to inmates. The program began in 2011 and was expanded to prisons across the state in 2014.
Inmates charge $99.95 to $119.95 for a single digital video player. Music is sold for $1.70 per song and is stored in a proprietary, prison-specific cloud storage service. Inmates can upload purchased songs to their players at any time. If inmates have more songs than they can fit on their players at one time, they have the option to swap songs. Prisoners can download a song to their player an unlimited number of times.
Demler’s lawsuit states that “between 2011 and 2017, FDOC sold 6.7 million digital media files, at a cost of approximately $11.3 million to inmates and their families.”
According to the lawsuit, ads for the service have the ability to buy songs and keep them forever. “Once you’ve bought music, you’ll always have it,” said one ad.
Prisoners like Demler lost access to their music
But Demler said the FDOC broke that agreement. In 2018, Florida chains changed vendors and hired former musicians. Inmates who have purchased old music players have the option to receive new music players for free. Owners of the previous program are also offered a $50 credit to purchase new music. But prisoners like Demler no longer have access to their old music.
FDOC gives inmates the option to have their former player sent to a friend or relative outside of prison. Alternatively, inmates can have music from their digital players burned to CD and have late send it to a friend or relative.
Either of these options is $24.95, and they will save the music that is on the device only at the time it is available. More to the point, inmates buy music in the first place because they want to listen to it while they are in prison. This was especially bitter medicine for Demler. He is serving a life sentence, so the option to send the player to a family member outside of prison is not practical for him (plus he says his closest relative is a 92-year-old brother who has no interest in music that).
According to the lawsuit, the FDOC practically admitted that the decision to release inmates to their music collection was a money grab. When inmates complained about losing their music, the lawsuit says, the Department of Corrections responded that the restrictions were “necessary” because “transferring content purchased from one vendor to another vendor’s device would deny the new vendor’s ability to pay for . (services).”
Demler argued that the decision to take away his music violates the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits the government from taking anyone’s property without compensation.
The Florida Department of Corrections responded
We asked the FDOC about this controversy, and here’s what the department told us:
In January 2018, the Department’s contract providing MP3 players to inmates expired. We purchased an optional contract to keep our technology up-to-date with features to enhance family interactions, educational opportunities, and inmate peace.
Inmates who have MP3 equipment have the option of delaying their purchases by sending the device, or the contents on a CD, to a non-prison address.
Additionally, all inmates who have an outdated digital player from the old deal are eligible to receive a new mini-tablet free of charge and receive a $50 music credit.
The old system started in 2011. It is important to note, prisoners with MP3 players who were released from custody within seven years of the agreement will have retained their MP3 players and music upon their departure. About 30,000 prisoners leave our prison every year.
It seems the obvious solution would be to give the inmates the option to transfer their old music onto the new device. I have asked FDOC why it has not done that and will update if the department responds.