Prison Amazon accounts keep federal inmates stuck in the 1990s


Inmates have purchased roughly $130,000 in vintage video gaming technology since federal prisons opened Amazon accounts last year, as security rules keep entertainment options mired decades in the past.

Correctional Service Canada (CSC) policies forbid inmates from buying any technology capable of communicating with the outside world. That means Canadian penitentiaries are places where the compact disc never died, Smart TVs are unknown and pioneering consoles like the Super Nintendo have endured decades past their prime.

Amazon became CSC’s first e-commerce supplier in January 2022, with a B.C. company joining months later. The aim was to give inmates access to wider choice and better prices.

It’s proven increasingly successful, according to Ghislain Sauvé, CSC director general of technical services and facilities. 

In 2022, inmates bought $586,000 worth of goods using the system. So far this year, purchases have already surpassed $740,000, Sauvé said.

But even with the world’s largest e-commerce company on board, the inmate purchasing experience remains decidedly low-tech.

Electronic goods are mostly limited to what CSC called “first-generation” consoles like the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Super Nintendo and the Nintendo 64, as well as the Game Boy and Game Boy Advance. 

Close up of a Nintendo Game Boy video game system.
Nintendo’s Game Boy, first released in 1989, is another of the portable gaming options in federal penitentiaries. (Bertand Guay/AFP via Getty Images)

Internet access ‘a risk’

The 1994-era PlayStation 1 takes top spot as the most popular console behind bars, with about 159 units purchased. 

But the Nintendo Switch, Game Boy DS, Wii and GameCube are off limits, according to CSC, as are more recent PlayStations. Policies also explicitly forbid any iteration of the Xbox.

“Some of the more modern consoles can access the internet,” said Sauvé. “And this is something that potentially is a risk.”

Devices that read MP3s are also banned, according to the policies, although Sauvé could not explain why. And the rules prohibit video-reading devices, which means inmates cannot buy movies or television shows and are limited to cable TV.

It is their money … let’s be clear about that. This is not taxpayer money.– Ghislain Sauvé

Personal computing is likewise stuck in the 20th century. Under the policies, inmates cannot use any Microsoft operating system more recent than Windows 98 and must rely on Microsoft Office 97 for their word processing and spreadsheet requirements.

Inmates do not have direct access to the Amazon account, according to Sauvé. Instead, they choose from a paper list and take their orders to staff, who log on and place the order.

“At some point, a box like you’ve seen on your doorstep will get delivered to one of our institutions,” he said.

The money comes from inmate accounts. There are limits to how much each prisoner can possess: $1,500 of property and an additional $300 of jewellery. 

“It is their money,” said Sauvé. “So let’s be clear about that. This is not taxpayer money.”

No price gouging

The Amazon system is the latest step in a journey that gives offenders more and better choices, while also saving CSC staff unnecessary effort.

Years ago, purchases were made locally, leading to “inconsistencies,” Sauvé said. 

“It was a bit of a burden on an institution having to have somebody [say] ‘OK, your turn to go to Walmart and pick up some items,'” he said.

So CSC later began working with a B.C. company called Prototype Integrated Solutions Inc. That centralized the process, but it had its drawbacks.

“Delivery times could be a bit slow,” Sauvé said “The variety … it is what it is, but then again it’s vetted through security. And I know offenders were not always happy with the prices.”

That prompted the move to Amazon, though Prototype came back on as the second electronic supplier last year. 

One advantage of using e-commerce platforms is that it blunts any accusations of price gouging, according to Sauvé. 

“This is the same system that you use, or any other Canadian would use,” he said. “We don’t take a cut. They pay what’s there and they get it delivered.”

Two signs with the word Amazon on them, one in the foreground and one in the background of the photo.
One advantage of using e-commerce platforms like Amazon, Sauvé said, is that it blunts concerns about price gouging. (Pascal Rossignol/Reuters)

Racist, terrorist and genocidal content prohibited

CSC policies limit more than technological progress behind bars. They also censor content — for video games, clothing and even jigsaw puzzles.

The rules forbid games with any information on how to make drugs or weapons, and those that could explain how to commit or cover up crimes. Games that promote “a theory of racial superiority” or incite hatred against a specific group are also prohibited, as are those that advocate genocide.

The same goes for “material of a sexual nature that involves violence, coercion, degradation, bodily harm or threats thereof to a person, whether real or fictional,” and anything that promotes gangs or terrorist ideology.

CSC was unable to provide examples of any sexist, racist or genocidal games unavailable on its e-commerce accounts in accordance with those policies.

Fashion is also restricted: clothing logos cannot depict gangs, alcohol, drugs, sexuality or violence. Musicians, “pop culture icons” are in most cases fine.

Jigsaw puzzles are subject to similar restrictions.

Music appears to be a free-for-all, with “all genres” allowed and no apparent restrictions on lyrics. But the ban on MP3 players will limit, or at least severely delay, access to the newest releases.

A grey sign identifying the prison behind it is in the foreground. There's a long, freshly-mowed lawn and in the distance a stone building that looks like a castle and has a red roof.
A sign outside the Collins Bay Institution, a federal penitentiary with maximum, medium and minimum security levels in Kingston, Ont. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The need for leisure

CSC did not respond to repeated requests for the complete list of items available through Amazon and Prototype, referring instead to its written policies for guidance on what is allowed.

But a tendering document that first announced CSC’s plan to sign a deal with Amazon revealed more about the “list of goods to be made available to inmates.” It included geometry sets, acoustic guitars and harmonicas, as well as hacksaws, carving tools, mallets, drills and X-Acto knives.

Asked why inmates would need access to those potentially dangerous tools, Sauvé pointed to Indigenous cultural practices and “arts and crafts.”

“It’s not like they’re just handed tools and here you go,” he said. “There’s a lot of different policies and steps in place to make sure that’s done safely.”

He also explained that purchasing options differ between security levels. Medium-security inmates can order scissors, suspenders and moustache trimmers, according to the policies, but those items are off limits in maximum-security prisons.

Geometry sets are explicitly prohibited for both security classes, though the policies are silent on minimum security. They do not clarify which prisoners have access to hacksaws.

Asked why inmates serving sentences for criminal activity should enjoy such a wide range of products, including a selection of vintage gaming consoles, Sauvé pointed to the universal human need for leisure.

“They’re going to serve their time in an institution. While they’re there, there’s [programming] to help their rehabilitation,” he said. 

“Leisure time forms part of that too,” Sauvé added. “It’s for them to decide how they’re going to spend some of that time, I guess, just like it is for you in your own home.”


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