Iowa inmates sue over the potential loss of music downloads

By: - March 18, 2022 4:22 pm

(Photo by Getty Images)

Two prison inmates are suing the state of Iowa over a decision they say could result in the loss of $4,600 worth of music they purchased through the prison system.

Steven Ray Wycoff and Kenneth Pladsen, who reside at the state-run Clarinda Correctional Facility, are suing Iowa Prison Industries and its director, Dan Clark, in Iowa District Court for Polk County.

According to the lawsuit, the two were allowed to purchase from Iowa Prison Industries an Edge Mini-Tablet device for $150. Through a contract that IPI has with a prison commissary company called Access/Keefe, the inmates then purchased songs that could be added to the tablet’s built-in music player.

Similar to other, conventional music-service providers, the Access/Keefe contract provided customers with lifetime access to the music they purchased, the lawsuit claims.

Wycoff purchased 1,975 songs through the service, and Pladsen purchased 445 songs, they claimed. The songs were priced at $1.75 each.

At some point after the purchases were made, according to the lawsuit, IPI terminated its contractual agreement with Access/Keefe, at which point inmates were sold SanDisk MP3 players.

Although the previously purchased songs can be transferred from the Edge Mini-Tablets to the SanDisk devices, the plaintiffs claim they have lost their guarantee of lifetime access to their music. They allege that if their SanDisk device is damaged, lost or stolen, they will forever lose the 2,420 songs they purchased at a total cost of more than $4,600.

The two claim that IPI policies have created a monopoly that forces inmates to buy goods and services from only those vendors with whom IPI has a contract. The state, they claim, has “turned IPI into a monopolistic franchise cornering the market on anything and everything purchased” by prisoners. They claim IPI is purchasing the lowest-quality items as a way to increase sales through the purchase of replacement items and is also overcharging inmates for the products that are offered for sale.

The plaintiffs are seeking reimbursement for the money spent on the tablets and songs, as well as a writ that would enjoin IPI from making any further purchases from outside vendors if the intent is merely to resell the items to inmates.

Clark and Iowa Department of Corrections officials could not be reached for comment Friday.

Wycoff is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder. Pladsen is serving a sentence for second-degree kidnapping.

Iowa Prison Industries is the work arm of the Iowa Department of Corrections and provides offenders with work-related training. IPI says it is entirely self-funded and relies on the sale of inmate-manufactured products, such as office furniture, to pay for the training.

In 2019, a group of Florida inmates filed a class action lawsuit against the Keefe Commissary Network for allegedly selling inmates songs with the promise that they would be forever accessible to the buyers when, in fact, access ended once the Florida Department of Corrections terminated its contract with the company.

From 2011 to 2017, Florida’s state inmates purchased approximately 6.7 million digital media files at a cost of roughly $11.3 million, with the state’s Department of Corrections allegedly collecting $1.4 million in commissions on those sales. The lawsuit was later dismissed and the dispute was directed to arbitration.

In 2016, a group of federal inmates sued SanDisk Corp. and Advanced Technologies Group, alleging that a contract they had with the Federal Bureau of Prisons resulted in inmates losing access to their music files. They alleged that once released from prison, they could not transfer their purchases to conventional MP3 players and had to buy a special, post-release MP3 player from ATG.

The defendants denied those claims and successfully argued for dismissal of the case, stating that inmates, upon their release, had only to pay a $25 fee to unlock access to their music files. “This case is a shakedown of two legitimate businesses,” the two companies told the court.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.

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