An open letter on the state of incarceration technology in Multnomah County

Jennifer McGuirk, Multnomah County Auditor
Nicole Dewees, Principal Management Auditor for Multnomah County
Residents of Multnomah County

Since George Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020, the Portland General Defense Fund has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to Multnomah County in bail, primarily through TouchPay’s kiosks and website. We have paid tens of thousands of dollars in fees to TouchPay.

The value we received for those fees?

    • The use of a poorly built website with minimal security precautions and routine failures that caused longer periods of incarceration for those arrested
    • Occasional customer service (offered only during hours convenient to TouchPay) that routinely insulted users, collected information that they had no legal reason to collect, and failed to solve problems with TouchPay’s services
    • The need to spend hundreds of hours of our own time troubleshooting the TouchPay system, confirming the receipt of payments, and otherwise using a ‘labor-saving’ piece of technology


The Bail Process in Multnomah County During the Pandemic

Jennifer and Nicole, we’re not sure if you’ve found yourself in the position of needing to post bail. Here’s the local process:

To post bail for someone arrested in Portland, Oregon, you must follow these steps: first, visit the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office website to confirm that the person you want to bail is held by the Multnomah County Sheriff. Second, call MCSO to check whether the person in question is eligible for bail and to confirm that the information listed on the website is accurate. Third, go to the TouchPay website and make a payment on the commissary account of the person you’re bailing. Fourth, call MCSO to inform them that you’ve made a payment via TouchPay. Fifth, confirm the person in question has been released, somewhere between one and twelve hours later.

All this assumes, of course, that everything goes perfectly: 

    • That the MCSO website lists correct information — it probably won’t, though, because the system doesn’t even allow users to enter arrestee’s names correctly if there are hyphens, multiple last names, or other variations
    • That the TouchPay website allows a payment to be made — it may not, because there are obtuse restrictions on payments through the TouchPay system, like limiting arrestees to two incoming money transfers per week
    • That you’ll be able to reach a person at MCSO’s bail desk to let them know about the bail you’ve posted — which can be impossible during times with high numbers of arrests
    • That the bail amount you need to post is less than $10,000 — otherwise, you’ll need to get a cashier’s check and deliver it in person


Those incredibly convoluted restrictions on payments made through TouchPay are perhaps the most dangerous because if a person attempts to post bail or provide funds on an incarcerated person’s account missteps, TouchPay will freeze that inmate account, preventing a person from being bailed for a week. 

That’s right: a simple user error in TouchPay can result in a week’s incarceration. In the normal course of events, that sort of failure is cruel. During a pandemic, a week’s incarceration in a facility widely known to ignore COVID precautions can lead directly to an incarcerated person’s death. There’s no alternative method of posting bail, either (cashiers’ checks are only accepted for bails too large for TouchPay).

TouchPay does not maintain instructions for users to help avoid these errors. We’ve had to create our own internal documentation of their system to help mitigate these problems. Issues that we’ve found that we’ve found that have either locked our TouchPay payment accounts or individual TouchPay inmate accounts:

    1. Paying more than $2,300 in a single payment
    2. Paying more than $9,999 to an individual inmate’s account in one week (no matter whether a bail is set at $10,000+)
    3. Receiving more than two transactions per week with a single inmate account
    4. Making three failed attempts at sending payments 
    5. TouchPay itself having technical difficulties


When asked about these limitations, TouchPay’s representatives have stated that automatic controls are in place to prevent money laundering. Given that there’s nothing stopping an individual or organization moving money from opening multiple TouchPay accounts except a system-enforced requirement for a unique email address, we’d like to suggest that TouchPay update their messaging to explain that their system isn’t designed to stop money laundering and other “financial crimes” but rather to add a few steps in hopes of annoying money launderers into stopping. 


TouchPay is Built on Systemic Cruelty 

TouchPay’s design and maintenance are deplorable. Friends and family members attempting to post bail for members of their community face terrible technology during an already stressful situation. TouchPay’s system assumes all users have nefarious plans, like money laundering, despite the fact that most of the people interacting with the system have not been accused of a crime, let alone faced a trial.

Even users inside MCSO find TouchPay painful to use. During calls to notify the bail desk of payments made, MCSO employees disparaged TouchPay and discussed how difficult they found the system to work with. One MCSO employee described TouchPay as “a piece of crap that was forced on us.”

While this letter focuses on TouchPay (currently the focus of an audit by the Multnomah County auditor’s office), every piece of technology used to support incarceration in this county has similar flaws. Securus, the telephone system all callers must use to reach people incarcerated by Multnomah County, is routinely sued for its failures. The company has dealt with multiple lawsuits, including several for illegally intercepting attorney–client privileged calls, recording those calls, and then distributing them to jail administrators and police officers. They’ve also been sued for overcharging users, for competition suppression, for lying to local governments and their own customers, for illegally tracking phones with the Securus app installed (on phones of people who are not incarcerated), and many other ways they’ve taken advantage of a user base that has no options.

These tools are horrible because they can be; the cruelty is the point. There is an underlying assumption that the people forced to use these tools are less than, that they are somehow not human. It is a common enough assumption about those who are incarcerated, but the companies producing these terrible systems make the same assumptions about the families, friends, and legal aid contacting individuals who are incarcerated.

There is a sense that prisoners (and by extension their families) do not deserve technology that makes their lives easier, that they deserve to suffer. The marginalization of prisoners and their communities makes it easier to reduce support for those who are incarcerated, as well as to more effectively control the communities these individuals are pulled from. Companies like TouchPay and Securus make surveillance a norm, endangering communities in the long run even more than they harm individuals in the moment.

And TouchPay has no incentive to improve their products. Software for jails and prisons a capitalist’s dream: a user base with no options for switching to other products, with no power to demand accountability, and life-and-death stakes on the table for anyone who wants to try to opt out of using these systems. There’s minimal regulations governing TouchPay’s activities. The underlying carceral system enables these companies. 


Eliminate TouchPay from Multnomah County Now, But Don’t Stop There

While we believe it is important for Multnomah County to end its relationship with TouchPay, the problems with TouchPay are symbols of greater harms:

    1. Cash bail, which the state of Illinois, as well as many municipal jurisdictions, have fully eliminated because it serves no purpose beyond increasing incarceration rates in low-income communities.
    2. Incarceration during COVID, which has resulted in Oregon’s carceral population facing one of the largest outbreaks in the US, already the global leader in COVID deaths
    3. A carceral system built on White supremacy, intended to silence communities of color and to continue institutional systems of oppression 


Until these underlying sins are addressed, any replacement for TouchPay will only continue to do harm, albeit potentially in a more technically effective manner.

Jennifer and Nicole, we encourage you to look for solutions that minimize harm for those incarcerated in Multnomah County, but also to use this audit as a chance to show the harm Multnomah County’s jails do to our community as a whole.

— The Portland General Defense Committee


Further resources: