Officials say it was "intentional exploitation," while some inmates' families described it as more of a "glitch."
Either way, reports that 364 Idaho inmates had a quarter-million dollars in credits improperly applied to their JPay tablet accounts had many on social media rooting for the prisoners.
Officials said the improper credits occurred when individuals placed products in their digital shopping carts and then removed them in a way that created a credit that was added to their total funds available.
Idaho Department of Correction investigators discovered the issue earlier this month, and the department has taken disciplinary action against those who received credits, contending the actions were intentional.
The hand-held computer tablets are popular in prisons across the country, and they are made available to Idaho inmates through a contract with CenturyLink and JPay. The tablets allow inmates to email their families and friends, purchase and listen to music or play simple electronic games.
The services come at a steep cost for inmates and their loved ones. For example, sending a one-page email from an Idaho prison costs about 50 cents.
Idaho inmates who have prison jobs make between 10 and 90 cents an hour. That means some inmates must work five hours to afford to send one email.
Cheaper options aren't available because JPay and similar companies negotiate with prison facilities to hold monopoly contracts that make them the only provider of email and other services.
The recent hack — or glitch, depending on who you ask — seemed akin to a Robin Hood story for some.
Cara Berg Powers, executive director of the Transformative Culture Project in Massachusetts, was among those voicing support for the inmates on Twitter.
"Because we keep using technology and private corporations to make experiences for prisoners and their loved ones less and less humane," she wrote in one tweet.
She went on to say the inmates should all be offered coding jobs, and joked that the credits likely were only enough to purchase a single bag of chips.
It's hard to feel bad when a company that charges 47 cents for an email accidentally lets some people send emails for free, said Peter Wagner, executive director of Prison Policy Initiative, an advocacy group that has fought to limit the prices companies can charge inmates for things like phone calls.
"These are the poorest folks in the state … and they are being asked to pay unreasonable sums of money to stay in touch with their loved ones," Wagner said, noting that one in four women in America have an incarcerated loved one.
JPay spokesperson Jade Trombetta said in a prepared statement that the company invests millions of dollars to create secure products and pointed out that the price of an email typically runs less than a stamp.
"These products help incarcerated Americans stay connected with loved ones, provide access to educational tools, assist in the rehabilitation process and offer other services that would otherwise be unavailable in jails and prisons," Trombetta said.
Idaho Department of Correction spokesman Jeff Ray has stressed that the agency believes inmates deliberately took advantage of the issue to boost their own accounts.
"This conduct was intentional, not accidental. It required a knowledge of the JPay system and multiple actions by every inmate who exploited the system's vulnerability," Ray said in a prepared statement.
Of the 364 inmates who allegedly exploited the issue, 50 credited their accounts in amounts exceeding $1,000. One inmate had a credit that was just under $10,000. In all, a total of nearly $225,000 was directed into inmate accounts.
Ray said the inmates involved were being given disciplinary offense reports by prison officials, which means they could lose privileges or be moved to stricter security classification levels. The disciplinary reports can also hurt an inmate's chance of receiving parole.
Melissa King of Douglasville, Georgia, said her brother, an Idaho inmate, is nearing his release date but now fears he won't get out because he received a disciplinary report after receiving a $380 credit from JPay.
She said her brother described the credit as a "misapplied payment from JPay" that he did nothing to obtain.
"I'm trying to get to the bottom of it from states away," King said. "They're saying that it was basically a misapplied payment, something that can happen with your bank or anybody else."
King said her family is willing to pay back the money, but first she wants an itemized statement from JPay showing the transfer and how it was spent. She says she's asked the company for a statement for six days but has yet to receive a response.
Inmates often rely on deposits from families and friends into their JPay and other accounts. Those deposits also come with fees: In Idaho, a $20 deposit to an inmate's account comes with a $3.50 charge.
"It's not like they (the inmates) went to the bank and then went on a shopping spree. They're sitting there waiting for blind payments from people on the outside," King said.
So far, JPay has recovered more than $65,000 in credits, and the company has suspended the ability of the inmates to download music and games until they compensate JPay for its losses, Ray said. The inmates can still send and receive emails, however.
This story has been updated to correct the name of an inmate advocacy group, Prison Policy Initiative.