Featured Story, Prison Stories

MP3 Players: The New Drug for Federal Prisoners

mp3Federal prisoners are now allowed one very personal item that had been traditionally checked at the door when they began serving hard time: music. With the advent of the Internet, social media, iPhones and Facebook, most prisoners serving decades of their lives, due to the governments misguided War on Drugs, have been left out of the world’s technological advances. No more.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons recently unveiled a program that allows many of its more than 200,000 prisoners to carry MP3 players, packed with personalized music lists, to pass the time. The devices, long available in the free world, are now being sold in prison commissaries nationwide for $69.20. The 2″ by 1″ SanDisk Clip player stores up to 1,800 songs and has a rechargeable battery.

“I love the MP3 player,” says a prisoner who has been incarcerated for 15 years on conspiracy charges. “I am officially an MP3 addict. I am spending all my money on songs. I got 200 songs right now but I plan on adding more. This is the best thing that has happened in the feds in a long time.” Songs are purchased on the year old TRULINCS system, an internal computer system with no Internet access, which has been enabling prisoners to email friends and family on their preapproved list through corrlinks.com. The songs are priced in three tiers at $.80, 1.20 and 1.55, though most songs are of the most expensive variety. The library contains over one million songs to choose from and all the major record labels in the United States are represented. Although the list is monitored to exclude “explicit” tracks, including material such as obscene or racially charged language. So no Copkiller or Fuck the Police downloads.

“The MP3 program is intended to help inmates deal with issues such as idleness, stress and boredom associated with incarceration,” BOP spokeswoman Traci Billingsley says. “Keeping inmates constructively occupied is essential to the safety of prison staffers and correctional institutions.” But some prisoners wonder if the MP3 players are only just another tool to control and corral prisoners and their moods. Idleness, stress and boredom are some of the main reasons for drug usage and addiction.

“They got all these dudes running around here with ear buds in their ears, listening to music like zombies,” one prisoner says. “It’s like night of the living base heads for real. There’s like 130 dudes on my unit and 50 of them got their MP3 players running nonstop. They can’t even hear you and don’t even pay attention to anyone anymore. Like they’re on heroin or something. It’s some serious junkie behavior. That’s crazy.”

One prisoner tells how he has exhausted all of his funds on songs. “I get money every month. Enough to live comfortably in here, but now I’m calling my girl and family for more money to get songs,” he says. “I spent everything on my account. The money usually lasts me a month, but I spent it all on songs. And I need more music. There is so much more stuff I want to get. My locker is empty, so I’m going to chow every day and usually I never go to the chow hall, I just eat out of my locker. But with an 1800 song limit I don’t see this stopping anytime soon. I got 100 songs, but I want more.”

Music is mood altering and in the prison environment, where it’s been so long deprived, prisoners are displaying addictive behavior in regards to the music they are now allowed to download. With the mood altering affects being enjoyed by the prison population, the music can be considered the same as a drug in prison. A legal drug albeit, but a drug none the less. It begs the question of what the BOP’s real intentions are.

With the majority of prisoners incarcerated in the federal system being ex and current drug users and addicts, is it any wonder they have traded one addiction for another? “MP3 players are the best thing that could have happened besides freedom,” a dude doing a life sentence says. “They allow you to remember and give you the mental ability to visit different people, places and times.”  Kind of like an LSD or ecstasy trip. Or maybe that statement brings peyote and mescaline to mind?

In reality prisoners are using the MP3 players and the music to escape the moment and forget that they are in prison. The same reason that people use drugs, to escape the reality of their situation and not face up to the pressures of life. Which leads to the question, is it a good or bad thing? It all depends on your perspective. And on what side of the fence you stand.

David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, which advocates for inmates rights, says the music program is perhaps the first of its kind in the country and represents a “positive step” toward improving prison security and providing inmates a needed link to the outside world. Music, he says, “allows for an important connection with life on the outside that assists with their eventual reentry to society.”

But is the MP3 music program just that? Or is it more? Since the Bureau of Prisons outlawed tobacco around 2005 a lot of sales revenue has been lost as prison commissaries were forced to stop selling cigarettes. Tobacco has now become the number one underground black market contraband item and led to a lot of illicit proceeds, staff corruption and violence to control the tobacco trade. With all the budget concerns and cuts made by Congress couldn’t the MP3 music program be a money maker for the BOP to increase their bottom line? And at the same time “chill and zone out” their prisoner population.

Let’s look at the numbers, if at least a third of the 200,000 prison population bought an MP3 player and downloaded 50 songs that would be approximately 70,000 times $125, which equals almost $9 million. And these are low estimates on how many prisoners bought the players and how many songs they purchased. The real numbers could be a lot higher. This $9 million was most likely generated in a couple of weeks. Pretty good business. Sounds like Mexican drug cartel numbers to me. What do you think?

So my question is this, have the feds found a legal mood altering drug in music, which they can supply to a ready-made, deprived and captive population of drug addicts? I would say yes. Due to our countries War on Drugs these circumstances have been created, cultivated and exist in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. It is what it is. A nation of prisons holding a multitude of drug addicts. Who are willing to get high and alter their moods with whatever drug is available, be it marijuana, K2, tobacco or music. Not that I am arguing with it. I got an MP3 player with several of hundred songs and I am loving it.