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PLN cited in article on tablets for prisoners, Oct. 2, 2015.

Computers for Cons: The Debate Over Tablets in Prisons Heats Up

The mini computers promise educational opportunity—but also a chance for companies to make more money off inmates and their families.
OCT 2, 2015
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. A former Fulbright scholar, she is based in New York.

The clear, molded plastic wrapped around a glowing screen looks fit for any high-tech tablet, but these mini computers offer something different: They’re designed for prisoners. Nueces County, Texas, is poised to become the latest place to join the growing number of jails and prisons that are offering handheld computers to inmates. The functions of different computers on the corrections market vary, but the tablets offer a range of entertainment, education, and communication options for inmates.

Proponents say the tablets could pave the way to lower recidivism rates through increased educational opportunity, but critics warn the companies building the computers are just looking for one more way to make money off inmates and their families, and that Internet access poses a safety risk.

Approximately 70 percent of state prisoners don’t have a high school diploma, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a fact that, on top of a criminal record, makes finding employment after release even less likely. That reality makes the educational promise of tablets especially appealing.

But those benefits could come at a steep cost to prisoners and their families. Companies such as JPay, Telmate, American Prison Data Systems, and Global Tel-Link are all cashing in on increasing interest in handheld computers for inmates from corrections departments. Each company has a different model and charges the departments, as well as the users—the inmates—differently.

“There are 2.2 million people locked up every day, almost all of whom have very diverse educational needs,” Chris Grewe, founder and CEO of APDS, told TakePart. “We’re motivated predominantly by the desire to help America’s large, troubled criminal justice system to deliver better outcomes, and we don’t believe that inmates should pay for access to this technology in any way.” The gap in prisoners’ education caught Grewe’s eye as a former educational publisher, and he cites education as the primary focus of his company’s tablets.

Grewe, whose tablets are in nine facilities in states across the U.S., inks contracts with local corrections departments to provide educational content from software makers such as Pearson and Rosetta Stone through tablets that the company owns and repairs as needed. Entertainment apps on the tablets are only available as a reward or incentive for completing educational programs. 

While only one of the nine facilities that Grewe works with permits inmates to use the tablets to communicate with family through email, tablets that enable inmates to call or message their loved ones, such as those made by JPay, are becoming more common. Numerous studies have found that prisoners who are able to maintain ties to their family and loved ones while incarcerated are less likely to return to prison. But as with phone calls, this service can come at a hefty cost.

“When you have a structure that raises the costs to families and people who are incarcerated, that is a perverse thing to do from a public safety perspective, because it makes maintaining contact less likely and more burdensome,” Jesse Jannetta, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute on prison and jail reentry and violence reduction strategies, told TakePart.

On Wednesday, the Federal Communications Commission released a long-awaited proposal to regulate the prison and jail phone industry and limit the amount that companies can charge inmates and their families. While the proposal is a big step forward for advocates who’ve long fought to curtail the costs of such phone calls, the plan doesn’t set any caps on charging for tablet use, making it an attractive unregulated market for those in the corrections business.

JPay charges inmates $49.99 to $57.99 for mini tablets, which can be purchased through the jail or prison commissary. The tablets feature games, music, and e-reader features. Email, messaging, and other communication through tablets is monitored by corrections staff, according to Prison Legal News. Inmates and family members are charged between 25 and 50 cents per sent message, and more if a photo is attached, according to Al Jazeera America. APDS, on the other hand, charges only the corrections department for the cost of the software: Inmates and their families pay nothing to use their mini computers.

The tablet contract in Nueces County offered by Global Tel-Link that caught the eye of Sheriff Jim Kaelin would provide 500 tablets to Kaelin’s jail for free, according to the Texas Observer, but the inmates would then be charged by the minute for their use, and the jail would get a cut. Nueces County Jail did not respond to a request for comment on its portion of the money made. Global Tel-Link has already made headlines for charging inmates and their families steep costs for phone calls—prices that it will have to rein in thanks to the new FCC rules.

While tablets have been available for people outside of prison for more than five years, versions built with tamper-resistant plastic and limited software specifically designed for prisons have emerged in the last two years, leaving a lot of unanswered questions about their potential, according to Jannetta. “It’s still a pretty nascent technology, and there’s still a lot we don’t know about what it might do in a correctional environment.” 

At best, there’s promise in increasing access to education, welfare programs, and job preparation—things known to prevent convicts from reoffending. Enrollment for public benefits, Medicaid, and job applications are often completed online, and incarcerated people—who already face barriers to employment—could benefit from being able to access this technology before their release. Jails in at least seven states give inmates access to mini computers, and as the prison tablet business grows, that number will likely grow with it.

Critics of the tablets have expressed concern about inmates’ ability to evade safety precautions, such as blocking access to social media and the broader Web.

“While the department claims they won’t be Wi-Fi capable, we all know inmates can overcome security protocols,” Jason Bloom, vice president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, a union for corrections officials, told Prison Legal News. “The potential risks don’t justify the taxpayer expense.”