Companies Pitch Tablets for Prisoners to Maintain Family Ties, Aid in Reentry ... and Generate Profit
Companies Pitch Tablets for Prisoners to Maintain Family Ties, Aid in Reentry ... and Generate Profit
by Derek Gilna
The Pennsylvania DOC is joining a small number of state prison systems that allow prisoners to purchase specially-modified tablet computers, and that number could grow as more and more corrections officials receive favorable reports about the electronic devices. Proponents say such new technology will help prisoners maintain family ties, gain access to educational resources and assist with reentry following their release.
However, the idea of introducing technology into prisons is not without its detractors, including guards’ unions that point to potential security threats, victims’ advocates who fear prisoners will have another way to intimidate their victims, and politicians who decry efforts to provide prisoners with technology that many non-incarcerated citizens lack.
Other critics worry that tablets will be little more than electronic babysitters – like televisions – that mostly provide prisoners with an opportunity to play games, listen to music and watch movies.
“Realistically, what prison officials want is something to keep inmates entertained or occupied,” said PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann. “The technology we would like to see is actual access ... to computers, computer training and computer classes so [prisoners] become computer literate and proficient with technology.”
Advocates note that tablets can help prisoners stay connected with their families and their lives on the outside. In Pennsylvania, prisoners will be able to access e-mail through the tablets, though such access is restricted to family members or friends who have an account with JPay, the DOC’s email provider, according to Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Deputy Press Secretary Susan Bensinger.
“We feel it’s very attractive to be using that type of technology inside the jail,” Bensinger said. “As 90 percent of the inmates will be returning to the community, isolating them from technology is not in line with the efforts to reduce recidivism. Many challenges are faced when they return, and using technology is one of the problems.”
Some prison officials believe tablets can also result in more secure facilities, and one company that provides tablets for prisoners, Telmate, claims that when its devices are introduced into correctional facilities there are “significant decreases in inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff assaults as well as a general reduction in rule and behavior code violations.”
However, the union representing Pennsylvania prison guards is not convinced. “While the department claims they [the tablets] won’t be wifi capable, we all know inmates can overcome security protocols,” said Jason Bloom, vice president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association. “The potential risks don’t justify the taxpayer expense.”
Further, some lawmakers have criticized the idea of allowing prisoners to have tablets. Pennsylvania state Rep. Darryl Metcalfe said people in prison are there to be punished, not rewarded with access to electronic devices.
“There are a lot of folks out there who can’t afford a laptop or a computer or a tablet and here you are going to give access to prisoners in their cells? It’s an outrageous proposal and one that the administration should slap down very quickly,” he remarked.
Additionally, groups such as the National Organization for Victim Assistance fear that introducing technology into prisons will result in “unrestricted and unsupervised outreach where inmates can revictimize or continue to intimidate victims.”
In spite of these concerns, around a dozen prison systems, including those in Ohio, North Dakota, Georgia, Louisiana, Virginia, Michigan and Washington, have allowed prisoners to purchase specialized tablet computers. The devices typically include built-in software security features, do not have access to wireless Internet (or have restricted access) and have transparent plastic cases to ensure they are not used to hide contraband. They can also be coded or registered to specific prisoners, preventing them from being stolen or traded.
A number of companies have entered the prison tablet market, including JPay, Telmate, American Prison Data Systems (APDS), Union Supply and Global Tel*Link (GTL), while prison mega-supplier Keefe Group, which bills itself as “the nation’s leading supplier” of prison-ready products, sells MP3 players.
Tablets vary in cost, and in facilities where allowed can be purchased by prisoners through the institutional commissary or by their families. For example, JPay’s mini-tablet, the JP4, which has 16MB of internal memory and a touch screen and runs on AA batteries, is priced from $49.99 to $57.99. The company says it has sold almost 100,000 of the devices; it also offers a larger 10” tablet computer, the JP5.
Tablets designed for use in correctional settings include a variety of features, such as access to secure email and video visitation services, MP3 songs, educational programs, games, movies, instant messaging and FM radio stations; they can also be used as an e-reader for electronic books.
Prisoners can purchase downloadable content for their tablets through special kiosks located in housing units, or in some cases through SD memory cards. Communication via the tablets, such as through email or video visits, is recorded and monitored by prison staff.
“We’re looking to provide education, rehabilitation and vocational training,” said Chris Grewe, the CEO of APDS. “We’ve got Khan Academy [lectures] and other kinds of really robust educational materials. We replace recreational reading libraries, which are typically just a handful of donated books, with access to tens of thousands of titles in multiple languages.”
Sometimes, corrections officials purchase the tablets and provide them to prisoners at no cost, transferring them to other prisoners when they are released.
“One teacher coming into a jail costs $50,000-$60,000 in salary and benefits,” said Robert L. Green with the Montgomery County, Maryland Dept. of Correction and Rehabilitation, which implemented a tablet program at the county jail. “If you can buy 15-20 tablets for $30,000 and circulate them among a large number of inmates, you tell me where the value is.”
In January 2014, Twin Falls, Idaho began allowing prisoners in the county jail to use tablets; the program was so successful that other jails in the state have adopted similar initiatives. Twin Falls County jail administrator Doug Hughes said the devices connect prisoners to the outside world, act as an incentive to promote good behavior and reduce the staff’s workload. He noted that in the future the tablets will also be used for video visitation.
“I do believe it’s been a very beneficial process for us,” Hughes said. Prisoners will be less institutionalized upon release if they can keep up with local news and stay in contact with their families and friends, he added.
Keefe was the vendor selected by the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 2009 to sell MP3 players and songs to prisoners; the company said the service netted more than 1 million music file downloads in just one year.
Prison officials initially expressed concerns that the MP3 players would result in a rash of thefts and fights over the devices but said those fears have not materialized, with prisoners who listen to music being less likely to engage in behavior that would result in loss of the electronic devices. The same logic applies to tablet computers.
Of greater concern to some prisoners’ rights advocates is that selling tablets to prisoners through the commissary, with no opportunity for competitive products or pricing, is just another way to financially exploit people who are incarcerated. Further, tablets add to the socioeconomic divide between prisoners who can afford the devices and those who cannot.
The companies that sell tablets to prisoners do so to generate profit – both from the sale of the devices themselves and through fee-based services like MP3 downloads, email and video visitation. Prisoners constitute a truly captive market and are easy targets for price gouging – as has been demonstrated by the historically high cost of prison and jail phone calls, as well as email services with fees of up to $.50 per electronic message and video visits that can cost $1.00 per minute or more. [See: PLN, March 2015, p.1; Nov. 2014, p.35].
“The emphasis seems to be more monetizing as many things as you can that prisoners and families have to pay for,” Friedmann noted.
Further, the companies that provide tablets and related services often pay a “commission” kickback to corrections agencies – the same model used by the prison phone industry. [See: PLN, Dec. 2013, p.1; April 2011, p.1].
For instance, according to a JPay rate sheet included in a contract with the Tennessee DOC, prison officials receive $10.00 per tablet sold, 4.5% of revenue from MP3 sales and 4% of email revenue. Those commission payments are representative, as the Tennessee DOC does not allow prisoners access to tablets or MP3 and email services.
In June 2015, GTL, the nation’s largest prison phone service provider that has a lengthy history of price gouging prisoners and their families through exorbitant phone rates, announced the release of a new device called the Inspire tablet. In addition to MP3 songs and educational programs, prisoners can use the tablet to make phone calls in their cells through GTL’s “secure wireless calling.” The company notes that prison officials can also load the tablets with “facility rules and guidelines, training manuals for jobs in various trades, social-emotional learning tools for skills like maintaining healthy relationships and anger management, and more.”
“We believe that the Inspire devices are the future of inmate communications, education and entertainment,” said GTL’s Chief Marketing Officer, Anthony Bambocci.
Of course, the tablets also represent the future of a larger revenue stream for the company. One of the first corrections agencies to order GTL’s newly-developed tablets was the Alameda County, California Sheriff’s Office.
“Using the Inspire tablets has allowed us to provide valuable educational content to our inmates, helping them to prepare for productive lives once they are released,” said Sheriff Gregory Ahern. “In addition, providing tablets to individuals has lessened conflicts surrounding the use of traditional inmate phones and given inmates productive ways to spend their time.”
Union Supply’s tablet, the U-TAB7, introduced in 2013, can be purchased from prison commissaries or directly from the company through its package program in states where the DOC allows such devices. The U-TAB7 includes functions for MP3 songs, ebooks, educational content and email services using a secure, proprietary Android platform.
“The prison electronics market will likely become larger in the coming years as states are allowing prisoners access to more electronics such as electronic tablets,” said Lucas Isakowitz, an industry analyst for the market research organization IBISWorld.
Former Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler echoed that sentiment when he expressed his strong support for providing prisoners with access to tablet computers.
“It has to work. It’s common sense that it will work,” he said, noting that tablets would help offenders build both educational skills and social support networks before facing the daunting task of securing employment upon their release.
“We have the ability in the 21st century to educate children online. You can learn a language online.... Why can’t we educate our offenders?” he asked.
A broader question is why can’t corrections agencies provide prisoners with meaningful access to computer technology that includes appropriate security safeguards without financially exploiting them and their families through fee-based services?
Sources: USA Today, Baltimore Sun, http://triblive.com, http://magicvalley.com, www.idgconnect.com, www.nbcnews.com, www.pennlive.com, www.unionsupply.com, www.jpay.com, http://america.aljazeera.com, www.gtl.net, www.correctionsforum.net