PLN quoted re introduction of tablets into MI jail
Trending technology works its way into jails
TABLETS ARE BEING INTRODUCED TO INMATES AT JAILS IN SANILAC AND ST. CLAIR COUNTIES.
Beth LeBlanc, Times Herald
January 2, 2016
Christmas came early at the Sanilac County jail this year.
A few days shy of the holiday, nearly every inmate was given a tablet computer as part of a pilot program to encourage good behavior and increase inmates’ access to library materials and job opportunities.
The pilot program is the first of its kind in the state, a beta test through Securus Technologies Inc., the company providing the county inmate phone services.
But Sanilac County isn’t the only location exploring new technology. In February, the St. Clair County jail also plans to make tablet computers available to inmates, and several other Michigan jails are contemplating the addition.
“This is a pilot program, but I see it as staying, as expanding,” Sanilac County Sheriff Garry Biniecki said.
“By giving them a tool such as this, they can utilize their time for constructive reasons.”
Allegan County Sheriff Blaine Koops, president of the Michigan Sheriff Association, said the additions in Sanilac and St. Clair counties reflect a statewide interest in the technology. In fact, Koops plans to make tablets available to Allegan County inmates in 2016.
“More than 50 percent of the counties are either in the stage of exploring, or actually have issued a (request for proposals) to make it happen,” Koops said.
New technology in the Thumb
While the goals of both tablet programs in St. Clair and Sanilac counties are similar, the implementation of those programs differs.
In Sanilac County, tablets were given to inmates at no cost to the county and, at least initially, at no cost to the inmates.
On Monday, inmates at the jail tapped through the applications on the tablet, bringing up job-hunting software, games and podcasts that included standup routines from Comedy Central.
“It makes the time go by faster,” said Clayton Troyer, of Marlette.
"It's a lot quieter in the cells," Cody VanBlaricum added.
The inmates will be able to use the tablets for free for a 60-day trial period, then they’ll be required to pay $30 a month to rent them through Securus, according to Lt. Nicholas Romzek, Sanilac County jail administrator.
Twenty dollars will go to the contractor, Securus Technologies Inc., and $10 will stay with the county.
Officials expect about 35 to 50 percent of the jail population will continue renting the tablet after the free trial period expires.
“This is only for good behavior,” Biniecki said. “If we have an inmate that’s acting up and they get locked down, there’s nothing saying they have to have access to this. It's reinforcement for good behavior.”
The tablets are connected to an intranet system at the jail, and do not have access to the internet. Romzek said Securus made about $60,000 in infrastructure improvements to implement the tablet program.
Inmates are able to access library resources, podcasts, news, pre-approved music apps, job search software and some brain teaser-type games. They also can use the tablet as a phone with earbuds.
“It keeps the inmates productively occupied,” Romzek said. “This is also a reentry tool.”
Officials hope to eventually outfit the tablets with law library material and resources to help inmates obtain their G.E.D.
Although inmates will be using new equipment, calls will continue to be monitored and screened. Inmates still will have to pay what they would to make a call from the jail phones — 22 cents a minute.
Romzek said the call cost was lowered from 50 cents a minute after a recent FCC ruling limited what inmates could be charged. About 40 percent of the call costs stayed with the county when the call was still at 50 cents a minute, Romzek said. Now, nearly all of the 22-cent cost stays with Securus.
Romzek said other jails throughout the country that have used the technology report good results in equipping inmates for reentering society — with an end goal of reducing recidivism — and in encouraging good behavior among inmates.
He said the use of an intranet system for the tablets ensures the inmates will not be able to access items not approved by jail administration.
Additionally, jail staff will have master tablets that can locate each of the tablets, monitor activities on the equipment and shut them down if necessary.
Romzek said the tablets will be returned to jail staff at the end of each day to be charged.
Pending technology in St. Clair County
In St. Clair County, tablets could be made available to inmates as early as February as part of the jail’s new commissary contract with Trinity Services Group. Trinity is partnering with Telmate to provide the service.
Capt. Tom Bliss, St. Clair County jail administrator, said about eight tablets will be placed in each housing unit or pod. With each pod hosting about 80 people, the ratio of tablets to inmates will be about 1 to 10, Bliss said.
Inmates will be able to view some things for free on the tablet, such as their records or inmate handbook, and will pay by the minute for others, such as email, games, books or movies.
The payments will be made through the inmates’ commissary accounts.
Bliss said he doesn't expect the shared tablets to cause issues among inmates, but he said jail staff would handle any disagreements if or when they come up.
“The only rule is that you’re on good behavior and you have money in your commissary account — that’s for anything they’ll buy,” Bliss said. “Obviously, they will all have access to it for general information.”
He said the availability of inmate information on the tablets will limit the time deputies spend tracking down information for inmates.
“It frees up staff so they can concentrate more on the safety and security of things,” Bliss said.
Bliss said the number and type of applications available on the tablets remains to be seen.
“There’s a number of things you can have,” Bliss said. “But we’re not going to put everything on there at once.”
Bliss said video visitation via the tablets also is a possibility in the future. Currently, visitations are done through a glass partition.
The Sanilac County jail implemented video visitations in August 2013. The video visitations allow families to communicate with inmates from home or from kiosks at the jail. While those video visitations will continue, they will not be conducted via tablets, Romzek said.
In St. Clair County, any emails sent through the tablet will be subject to the same screening and monitoring that they would be through jail computers. And inmates will only have access to applications approved by jail administration.
Bliss said the infrastructure required for the tablets will be paid for by the vendor. The county may incur some nominal costs for the placement of infrastructure in high security areas.
A trending technology
While Sanilac and St. Clair counties may be some of the first Michigan jails to provide inmates with tablets, they likely won’t be the last, Koops said.
He said many counties are looking at the possibility of making tablets available to inmates.
Chris Gautz, a Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman, said while state prisons do not have tablets available to prisoners, it’s not out of the question for the future.
“We’ve done a pilot program in the past,” Gautz said. “It’s still something that we might be open to.”
Koops said the move toward tablets and other educational programming in jails reflects a change in a jail's overall mission.
“Our whole profession is changing,” Koops said. "When you look at what we were 20 years ago, we’re different …The mission isn’t just to incarcerate; that mission now is to have that inmate leave the jail better than they were before.
“And, truly, that is purely economic because if we can reduce that recidivism rate, we save money for the county.”
Biniecki said inmates’ time in jail is supposed to be corrective and progressive. He feels the tablets serve both goals by helping inmates to learn about and change the behavior that landed them in jail in the first place.
While the program won’t cost the taxpayer, Biniecki said, recidivism does.
“Maybe this will reduce that recidivism rate even further,” Biniecki said.
New technology prompts new costs, new concerns
Ronald Simpson-Bey is a program associate with the American Friends Service Committee Michigan Criminal Justice Program, a nonprofit that advocates for incarcerated people.
Simpson-Bey said the tablet program seems like a plus for inmates inasmuch as it allows them opportunities to learn and gain autonomy.
“Administration has the tendency to regulate everything the incarcerated person does,” Simpson-Bey said. “Anything that gives them autonomy in that setting, we’re all for. It allows them to take care of themselves.
“If you don’t have a measure of self-determination upon re-entry, you’re more likely to fail.”
But as tablets, video conferencing and inmate-specific email systems become more popular around the country, some advocacy groups are approaching the technology with caution.
Alex Friedmann, managing editor for Prisoner Legal News, said the electronic offering, while beneficial for inmates, can be revenue-generators for the contractors providing the service and any counties that receive a cut of that revenue.
Friedmann said since the FCC put a cap on what jails can charge for phone calls, businesses have seen tablets and video conferencing as ways to replace that decreased revenue.
“What these companies have is literally a captive market,” Friedmann said. “Most prisoners are indigent and the money they get is from their family.”
In recent years, Prison Legal News, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the human rights of incarcerated people, has focused its efforts on lowering the cost of prison phone use.
But Friedmann said the emerging tablets, email system and video visitation costs are becoming a new area of focus.
“Definitely, there’s benefits to introducing information technology to prisoners,” Friedmann said. “But we object to this notion that everything needs to be monetized.”
Koops said any money collected by jails through commissary sales, phone costs or tablet use largely is poured right back into inmate programming — programs such as alcohol or drug counseling.
“We’re increasing that revenue to improve the inmate programming,” Koops said. “It’s like an inmate is investing in their own future.”