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PLN editor quoted on tablets provided to prisoners

Bright Magazine, Nov. 1, 2017.

Can Screen Time Reduce Prison Time?

Education companies now offer tablets to prisoners. But the jury’s out on whether they’re here to help or profit.

Nov. 1, 2017


Madera County sits at the center of one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions, surrounded by the flaxen expanses of California’s Central Valley. Here, like anywhere in the country, teens get picked up by police for involvement in gangs, drugs, truancy, and violence. Madera County Juvenile Detention Facility is where most of them wind up.

The MCJDF has the vibe of a high-security middle school, whatever that might say about either. At the center of each block are the bolted down benches and tables familiar to many prisons. Not so familiar is the sight of adolescent inmates, earphones in and faces aglow as they gaze contentedly into their Android tablets.

The MCJDF is part of a growing trend across the U.S. to put tablets in the hands of inmates. It’s billed as a way to create learning opportunities where they are often lacking, thereby reducing recidivism and maximizing the limited educational potential of prison facilities.

The MCJDF is part of a complex that includes an adult prison, a secondary school, and an animal shelter. The place is small, with a capacity of just 70 inmates. It consists of two “pods,” one for the short-term juvenile population, the other for cadets of a court-ordered, boot camp-style academy program.

In a multipurpose room near the MCJDF offices sits what looks like a high-tech ice cream cart. Inside are dozens of Android tablets, each sheathed in a layer of protective plastic and loaded up with custom software. For nearly a year, MCJDF inmates have had access to the tablets for about six hours a day. The adult facility next door got them a year prior, but these incarcerated youth are the first in California to take part in the program.

The tablets contain both educational and entertainment content. Inmates earn points under the ‘Learn and Earn’ section with courses covering basic school and literacy subjects, along with GED and college preparation, legal information, and trades like mechanics, construction, and accounting. There’s also material on spirituality, health, anger management, self-improvement, and meditation.

The points earned for completing these courses can then be spent on music, movies, and family-friendly stand-up comedy videos. “It’s not Kevin Hart, but there are actually some pretty funny people in here,” said Jacob Kaden, a recent graduate of the MCJDF academy program.

The idea here is to incentivize productive use of inmates’ otherwise idle hours, to fill academic gaps, and prepare them for further professional and educational opportunities upon release.

These tablets run on a closed Wi-Fi network, programmed to prevent connections with the outside internet — though some prisons report tech-savvy kids managing to hack through. Eventually, these tablets may incorporate outward communications features, an alternative to often exploitatively expensive phone calls from prison. But for the moment, they’re just for studying and passing time.

“When we didn’t have the tablets, we mostly wrote letters to our families, played cards, chess or checkers, and that was basically our day,” said Kaden. “The tablets make our time go by much faster, which is a good thing because we all just want to go home. If you’re having a bad day, or you’re thinking about things, you can just put on some music or watch a movie or something to get your mind off it.”

Participants in prison tablet programs often report positive results, including a shift in attitude among inmates regarding their prospects upon release, and a general a reduction in aggressive behavior. But some companies that sell them are facing accusations of profiting from the serious educational shortcomings that beset American prisons.

These shortcomings are especially pronounced in juvenile prisons. Juvenile inmates are separated from their communities, families, and education at a critical stage in their personal development. Some 40 percent enter prison with learning disabilities, while general rates of depression, suicide risk, and overall self-harmful behavior are consistently higher than their non-imprisoned peers.

But teachers at juvenile jails are often underfunded and under-equipped, meaning the quality of education received by juvenile inmates is generally substandard. So tablet companies are betting they can pick up the educational slack using technology.

“In many cases I think tablets are trying to solve some good problems,” said Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, where he teaches a class called Technology and Social Change. “Historically, when communications technologies are brought into American prisons, they’re used to exploit the prison population. And so the question really comes down to, will this be introduced in a way that is good for prisoners?”

The tablets at MCJDF come from a company called Edovo (short for Education Over Obstacles). There’s a growing number of companies in this space: Global Tel*Link Corp, Telmate, American Prison Data Systems, Union Supply, JPay, to name a few.

The potential of these tablet programs is compelling, and the points-based approach reflects proven incentive systems. At Madera, inmates and staff report that the tablets have had a palliative effect. “I think that there is less fighting in the facility, less disruption,” said Betty Klein, a teacher at MCJDF.

The form factor itself is of interest too. One advantage of tablets is that they offer a relative degree of privacy compared to the classroom environment or a communal TV (Edovo’s first efforts were at educational content for prison TVs). Students eager to get their GED or college credit, or just some perspective, often find that the culture within prison is less than supportive of these goals.

“You can’t learn when you’re scared,” said Katharine Edmonson, a former science teacher at the juvenile corrections program at Camp Erwin-Owens in California’s Kern County. “And there’s a lot of fear that goes on with constantly worrying about getting beat up or showing you’re tough.”

Indeed, prisons often foster a dynamic in which sincere interest in learning can be a liability. So the reward of entertainment for study isn’t just an incentive for self-improvement, it’s also a way around that dynamic. A young prisoner can always say, ‘I’m just doing this for the games.’

“Some people in here have anger issues or short tempers, so when the teachers tell them to do their work or something they could easily just get angry,” said Cadet Kaden. “The counselors help a lot too. You can ask to talk to them privately and personally. But some people don’t feel comfortable doing that, so the courses on the tablet, you can take them and you can keep them to yourself, and just learn from them that way.”

While Edovo’s tablet programs can’t confer degrees, some do offer college credit via NCCRS and Saylor Academy partnerships. Most courses provide certificates of completion.

“I always tell these kids, when they have a court review with a judge or something, take those certificates, give them to your attorney,” said Paul DeOrian, MCJDF’s Deputy Chief Probation Officer. “Tell them, hey, I’m not over here just pounding the wall and watching TV. I’m trying to improve myself.”

Using tablets can also contribute to technological literacy, one of the most important factors in today’s job market. “This is a generation that grows up with technology,” said Edovo CEO and co-founder Brian Hill. “And you take their phone away for the next six months? We live in a world where it’s hard to even fathom that idea.”

Not everybody shares this idealism. The shortcomings of education in prisons is, after all, symptomatic of a larger system which sweeps up and catches young people in cycles of incarceration.

The temptation always exists to see technology as a panacea. But solving for symptoms is not the path to a cure.

“I’m in favor of anything that increases educational capacity in prisons, and certainly technology is a powerful part of that,” said Dr. Baz Dreisinger, Associate Professor at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and the founder of its Prison-to-College Pipeline program. They’ve managed to successfully advance prisoners into college programs at high rates, through cultivation of good old fashioned teacher-student relationships.

“What I don’t support is the use of technology in lieu of people,” she added. “There is nothing that can replace the presence of an in-person education program.”

This calls into question the potential of any product to serve as an agent of meaningful reform. At worst, such efforts can be seen as cynical exploitation of an already unjust and counterproductive prison industrial complex.

“I don’t think the companies peddling tablets are interested in education for prisoners so much as seeking better ways to exploit prisoners and their families by monetizing human contact,” said Paul Wright, Director of Prison Legal News. “These are hedge fund-owned companies whose purpose is to make money for their owners … I would think otherwise if they were selling the tablets to the government rather than paying for it off the backs of prisoners and their families.”

MCJDF says their tablet program is supported by a state-funded grant. But in other districts, funding is drawn from prisoner welfare funds. These are budgets funded by prisoner purchases, phone calls and other expenses, which prison commissioners may spend at will. Typically, this goes to pay for gym equipment, TVs, and other accoutrements meant to benefit prisoners.

At some point, we will need to interrogate the system that puts young, labile minds in cages and expects that they’ll emerge any healthier or better equipped for normal life.

Of course, those caught up in the system have little say as to the educational and counseling opportunities they receive. So any gains in terms of agency, access, and opportunity are welcome.

“I feel that this tablet has helped me to get more academic skills, more skills with comprehending my issues, my problems,” says Kaden. “It’s helped me learn about outside jobs and different kinds of businesses and stuff like that. It’s also helped me relax a lot by just listening to music and thinking about when I get out and how I’m going to stay out. It’s helped me a lot.”