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NYC Jails Still Without Tablet Lifeline to the Outside Six Months After Contract Expires

by Jo Ellen Nott

By December 2022, nearly six months after its contract with tablet provider American Prison Data Systems (APDS) expired, the New York City Department of Correction (DOC) had still not explained why prisoners and detainees have been deprived of the valuable link to the outside.

From its inception in 2015 to its abrupt end on June 30, 2022, the tablet program was entirely free for prisoners. DOC purchased the tablets, which cost about $200 apiece. Harris Ferrell, CEO of APDS, said that usage cost for each tablet added another $1.29 per day, or about $470 annually. That’s a fraction of what DOC spends to incarcerate someone for a full year – more than $500,000.

Ferrell said the APDS tablet is primarily an educational platform. But with a guard shortage in DOC limiting access for those incarcerated to programming and recreational activities, entertainment services such as movies became a popular way to fill empty hours.

APDS content on the tablets included a virtual law library, substance abuse therapy, audio books, e-books, games, job skills training and adult basic education, as well as movies, all free to incarcerated people. One popular course was based on the The Master Plan, a book by former prisoner Chris Wilson, whose life’s turn-around proved inspirational.

Now advocates for prisoners and detainees worry that even if there is a new tablet program, the provider may not honor the same deal but will charge incarcerated people to use messaging. DOC announced in October 2022 that it would ban personal postal mail from being handed directly to prisoners, alarming activists that JPay or another prison profiteer could charge families not only for messages but also for scanned letters.

In New York State prisons, JPay charges inmates 20 cents for every outgoing email. Rikers Chaplain Victoria A. Phillips is concerned that the predatory system will profit from the need to scan families’ letters because of the new ban: “When you talk about eliminating someone’s access to mail and putting everything on the tablet, it scares me, because what does that really look like for a company only known for charging detainees in jails and prisons?”

DOC reported in early November 2022 that it was finalizing a new contract. But a month later, resumption of tablet service still had not been announced.

Sources:  Gothamist, WBLK

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