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PLN quoted in article about JPay tablets for prisoners

IDG Connect, Feb. 3, 2015.

The JPay tablet tries to connect the prison population

The US has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, there are 2.4m people in prisons, jails and correctional facilities while the debate over how effective reform and rehabilitation is rages on.

Another problem for prisons and its guards is the issue of smuggling. Various narcotics and cigarettes are a significant problems but so too are mobile phones. A report from Reuters in early 2014 detailed how prisons were ramping up their efforts to curtail phone smuggling but what about actually allowing electronics in?

Florida’s JPay is a company that’s trying to own the strange market where prisons and tech gadgets intersect. Sometimes referred to as the Apple of the US prison system, JPay handles payments, secure email services and most recently, released its latest electronic device, the JP4, a tablet for prisoners.

“Our goal is to become the nation’s digital consumer app company for prisons,” company CEO Ryan Shapiro told CNBC last year. JPay already has a presence in several states including Ohio, Michigan, and Washington.

The $49.99 tablet with 8GB memory is anything but state of the art and won’t be challenging your iPad anytime soon. It’s clunky in size and shape, powered by AA batteries, and looks like a cross between a Gameboy and an older smartphone but its rudimentary design and features are the whole point in keeping it simple.

JPay declined to comment for this story on the tablets or their use.

One of the key benefits seen by prisons is the educational advantages of using some technology while incarcerated. This allows a limited and monitored communication channel and also can be used to improve inmates’ technical literacy before they are released, at least in theory.

However, Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal  News, a publication that covers issues facing prisoners and the prison system, worries that the technology is not being utilised for educational and computer literacy as much as it should be.

“Realistically what prison officials want is something to keep inmates entertained or occupied,” he says. When prisoners are left idle, it can breed tension between inmates or cause unrest. “The JPay tablet is really just an extension of that electronic babysitter to keep prisoners occupied.”

Friedmann holds the view that prisoners need all the resources they can to reform themselves. A former prisoner himself, he says many prisoners are “technologically crippled” when they’re released and searching for work. Limited use of electronics could address this education gap if deployed correctly.

“When I was incarcerated in the 1990s, when I went into prison the internet as we now know it did not exist,” explains Friedmann. “When I came out of prison years later, things had changed dramatically but there is no instruction and education within prison to prepare people for jobs on the outside that require technology.”

Criticism of profiteering

JPay, and some other similar companies like the Keefe Group that makes mp3 players for prisoners, are not without their critics and have been accused of profiteering off of prisoners and their families who are usually the ones paying for these services. Many prisoner families in the US live in poverty too.

Prison Legal News views the use of electronics in this fashion as also exacerbating socioeconomic divides in prison. Wealth can determine how you’re treated in the justice and prison system, whether it’s being able to able to afford bond or a decent attorney or paying for better conditions, known as pay-to-stay prisons.

“[The JP4] comes at a cost and if you can afford it then you can obtain the benefits that come along with the tablet,” says Friedmann, who is one of those critical of companies that are monetising prison services. “If you can afford it, of course if you can’t then you don’t.”

There may be some other concerns with the tablet too. It comes in a clear case for obvious reasons, so no contraband can be hidden inside. But while the communications are monitored and an imprisoned drug kingpin will not be able to communicate with contacts on the outside, the physical presence of the tablet raises its own issues over whether it could be used as a weapon.

ICT training needed for prisoners

Several different organisations, not just in the States, campaign for greater educational programs to be offered in prison, which they believe will increase the rate of rehabilitation, aiding convicts in finding work upon release and in rebuilding their lives.

Writing in Inside Time, another prison focused publication, Nina Champion of the Prisoners’ Education Trust argued that it was time to bridge the digital divide between prisoners for their own good.

In a report produced with the Prison Reform Trust in the UK, a number of experts argue that ICT can ultimately lead to a reduction in reoffenders. They also lament the state of educational technology available to prisoners. “We can’t go on with prisons in a pre-internet dark age: inefficient, wasteful and leaving prisoners woefully unprepared for the real world they will face on release,” said Nick Hardwick, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons in the UK.

Friedmann says he agrees with this view and believes that the emphasis on technology in prisons is misplaced. “The emphasis seems to be more monetising as many things as you can that prisoners and families have to pay for. Things like electronic cigarettes, well that doesn’t really benefit anybody,” he says, adding that mp3 players often amount to the same thing.

“The technology we would like to see is actual access from prisoners to computers, computer training and computer classes so they become computer literate and proficient with technology.”



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