This article appeared in the April 19, 2024 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

Phillip Vance Smith, II. Courtesy of the author.

Watching films has helped me make it through 22 years of a life-without-parole sentence in North Carolina.

In many ways, films are the lifeblood of a society: they filter our experiences through art to teach history, to memorialize current events, and to help define our social morality. They entertain us, too.

Entertainment helps break the monotony of prison life. North Carolina does not allow incarcerated residents to buy personal televisions. In prisons across the state, I have sat in groups to watch films on cable television, on DVD, and sometimes projected on a theater-size movie screen. I’ll never forget the raucous laughter of 70 prisoners in my cellblock after Kevin Hart slapped Ice Cube in Ride Along 2 (2016). I still think about our tears when watching Lupita Nyong’o being whipped in 12 Years a Slave (2013). Films unearth buried emotions, even when we want to hide them, and they also help us escape the reality of incarceration.

In 2019, prison technology changed my movie-watching experience for better and worse with the introduction of tablets by ViaPath (formerly GTL or Global Tel Link), a company that provides telecommunications to prisons, including phone and payment services. Now I can choose a film from a limited selection to watch at my leisure. But this convenience comes at a high cost. Normally, people subscribe to an app for a monthly fee. ViaPath apps in North Carolina prisons work a lot differently. Each prisoner is assigned a tablet free of charge, but to watch films, we must buy a bundle of minutes.

I can buy only 500 minutes of the Premium App Bundle for $10, which hosts three film apps. The Classic Movies app offers black-and-white films ranging from the silent era to Orson Welles’s Macbeth (1948). The Films & TV app is made up of B-movies like Riverworld (2003), a horrible science-fiction TV pilot that ViaPath lists as a “feature film.” Those two apps are never updated with new films. Their selections remain the same in perpetuity. The Premium Movies app hosts an assortment of films such as High Noon (1952), starring Gary Cooper, and The Dark Tower (2017), featuring Idris Elba. It swaps about 10 films every 60 days, but never adds new releases. Happy Gilmore (1996), Major League (1989), and Jaws (1975) were a few of the latest films added to the Premium Movies app in March 2024. We must use all 500 minutes of the Premium App Bundle within 30 days or forfeit them.

New releases are available on the Premium Access Pass, which allows us to buy only 200 minutes for $8, equivalent to 4¢ a minute. Unlike the Premium App Bundle, which also has games, the Premium Pass Bundle is centered on films, though it also includes an app that offers up-to-date news from Fox, TMZ, MSNBC, etc. On the Premium Pass Bundle we can watch the Movies Gold app, which currently features Barbie (2023), Instant Family (2018), and xXx: Return of Xander Cage (2017), along with about 300 other titles. The Premium Pass Bundle expires in 96 hours.

The prices of the apps and bundles are not standard across all prisons.

Juan Haines, a resident at San Quentin in California whom I interviewed, can watch films that are a decade old on a ViaPath app that costs $5.49 for 30 days of unlimited viewing.

In New York State prisons, Corey Arthur uses a tablet provided by a different telecom company, JPay (Securus). He told me that JPay offers single movies, ranging from $1.99 for older films that are on sale to $8.99 for new releases. To replay a film after 48 hours, users must pay again.

“Besides having an inferior movie list,” Arthur wrote in an e-message from his tablet, “the prices are way too high, especially when you consider the overall pricing of services that are free in society.”

Divergent pricing schemes across multiple states signals a prison-tech industry that is poorly regulated. Because these companies enter into contracts with entire state prison systems, once they are entrenched, they can charge whatever they want. ViaPath and JPay’s high prices extend to instant messaging, phone services, and trust-fund account management. Each company strives to provide every service the state needs, creating a pseudo-monopoly where they operate. There is no competition to keep prices fair. In many cases, states receive revenue directly from prison-tech companies, furthering dependence on them. These revenue-sharing agreements increase costs because the company must split profits with the state.

The high cost of entertainment falls on families of the incarcerated more than us because we can’t earn much money behind bars. Most jobs in North Carolina prisons pay 40¢, 70¢, or $1 per day—so a streaming bundle could cost a prisoner two weeks’ worth of income, or more. We simply can’t afford the price of entertainment. The astronomical fees that prison-tech companies charge are aimed at our families, who want to help us while we are incarcerated.

At the London Correctional Institution in Ohio, Michael Ray, whom I interviewed through an intermediary over e-messaging, can also access the Movies Gold app on the Premium Pass Bundle with a ViaPath tablet, except at a higher cost. The same 200 minutes cost him $10—$2 more than we pay in North Carolina. Ray can also buy a package that North Carolina doesn’t offer, called the Entertainment Bundle, which costs $12.99 for 30 days of unlimited streaming. With that deal, Ray used to be able to stream Pluto TV and Crackle—apps with television shows and films that are mostly between three and five years old, with no new releases. Pluto TV was removed in February 2024 because of “content and technical difficulties.”

The facility never elaborated beyond that—but Ray has an idea of what might have happened. “As far as technical difficulties go, there were a lot of movies and shows which simply would not play—I’d say at least a quarter of the content was affected, which means there were hundreds if not thousands of titles that were unavailable,” he told me. “As far as content goes, there was your typical violence and nudity, which is somewhat taboo to prison administrators but not necessarily a deal breaker. While none of the movies would be classified as pornography, some of them did portray genitalia and penetrative sex, such as Shortbus and Nymphomaniac. I’d guess this is what the announcement meant by ‘content.’”

In 2019, the medium-custody prison where I am housed served as the tablet pilot program in North Carolina. We had Pluto TV from the beginning. Although it did not offer new releases, the app listed hundreds of films in at least two dozen categories, as well as seasons of TV shows and music-video streaming stations. We often joked that we spent more time choosing something to watch than we actually spent watching movies, but the service was imperfect.

Technical issues were part of the problem. Despite the large selection, some films would not work. I could open the film’s file, but the film would buffer endlessly, wasting time and money. Pluto TV also incorporated commercials throughout its films. That’s not a problem for someone using the app for free, but it is for prisoners paying to watch by the minute.

Pluto TV’s content was more of a problem for prison staff. It featured shows that prison systems would consider a threat to the security of institutions. Series like The First 4860 Days In, and COPS pull back the veil on the sometimes unethical methods used by law-enforcement agencies to secure arrests, especially in criminal investigations. Nudity in films was also an issue. North Carolina prison policy prohibits nudity in photos and magazines. Several correctional officers told me that they didn’t want us to have Pluto TV because its content violated prison policy. So I wasn’t surprised when Pluto TV was removed from our tablets in 2020.

Kwame Teague has been serving life in North Carolina for about 30 years. While in prison, Teague penned the Dutch series, a collection of urban novels published by Teri Woods. The series was adapted into a movie that, after a brief stint in theaters, aired on BET in 2021, enabling Teague to watch the cinematic realization of his greatest accomplishment on cable TV in his prison dorm. Since then, Teague has written several screenplays and contributed to the production of independent films like Till My Casket Drops (2022) and C.R.E.A.M. (2023), which are available on Tubi, a free movie app that we can’t access.

Prison officials will probably point to excessive violence and sexual content as reasons why we could never access films like the ones Teague has written via Tubi on ViaPath tablets, although Black urban movies show no more nudity or bloodshed than the shows we can already watch on basic cable television, like Yellowstone or American Horror Story.

“I understand why we can’t have Tubi,” Teague said in an interview at the medium-custody prison where he is housed in North Carolina. “But the apps we have lack films that highlight Black, Asian, and Latino culture. ViaPath doesn’t offer good stories that paint people of color in a positive light. We need diversity. Especially since we’re paying such a high cost.”

To be clear, ViaPath doesn’t choose the films we have access to. A “correctional-programming” company named Edovo provides all content for ViaPath tablets, as well as a few other tablet providers. Edovo gives prison systems a menu that catalogs content in groups. Each group—movies, books, etc.—is categorized into fields, such as “Premium: new material,” “Second Market: more than a year old,” or “Low: open access.” It is unclear if Edovo purchases the rights to show us films, and if so, how much Edovo pays.

For films, prison systems can select a rating range—for example, G through PG-13. They can further select subcategories to exclude specific content like adult themes, violence, or language. They can also choose a price range. Once the categorical selections are made, only the applicable films are uploaded for us to watch. This is why we pay 2¢ per minute to watch The Goonies (1985) instead of John Wick: Chapter 4 (2023).

I rarely watch films on the tablet. I can’t afford to. I earn 40¢ a day as a dorm janitor. I can’t sacrifice a stick of deodorant to watch a bad miniseries called Knights of Bloodsteel (2009).

Despite the high cost and censored content, I still see three or four guys huddled around a tablet’s eight-inch screen to watch the latest films posted to the Movies Gold app. Sometimes they pitch in commissary items to share the $8 fee. Regardless, we could have cheaper packages. Edovo could offer a better selection of films. Prison systems don’t have to exploit us. But at least we have something to help us escape prison life, if only for 90 minutes.

Publication of this essay was facilitated by Emily Nonko and Empowerment Avenue.

Phillip Vance Smith, II has been incarcerated for 22 years. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, and his writing has been published in Slate, Logic(s), and The North Carolina Law Review. His collection of poetry, LIFE: Learning Instructions for Everyone…in Prison & Out, was released by Bleakhouse Publishing in 2024.