Delaware warned about free ‘tablets’ program at prisons

DOVER — Delaware should be careful with the tablets (personal electronic devices) recently made available to prison inmates, the Massachusetts-based public policy think tank Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) says.

Delaware is among eight states mentioned in a recent report by the group. PPI assessed “free prison tablet” contracts to which these state’s prisons systems have agreed.

Often designed in a way that passes the cost of offering the tablets to the inmates themselves through various surcharges on the platform, private vendors tout the service as “no cost” to the taxpayer or state.

While enthusiastic about the programming and family communication benefits inmates may reap from using tablets, PPI is recommending to states to be careful that the added capabilities don’t erode existing services and ensure that inmates aren’t gouged with onerous pricing.

“The main issue we’re worried about is prisons and jails using new technology as a way of shifting the cost of incarceration to the incarcerated people themselves and their families — making the experience of being in prison even more austere and less rehabilitative,” said PPI’s communication strategist and the report’s co-author Wanda Bertram.

Pressure on DOCs

“There is a dynamic in our country that comes with incarcerating as many people as we do: it puts intense pressure on DOCs to find ways of trimming their budgets.

“One of the most infamous ways we’ve seen states do this is by contracting out operation of prisons to private companies, but there are a lot of individual services, like the tablets, that can be contracted out in this way too.”

In Delaware’s case, a limited tablet pilot program was launched at Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution in 2016, said DOC Bureau Chief of Prisons Shane Troxler.

After a “great” response from both inmates and prison staff, administrators decided to expand the program. Contracting with GTL — the state’s existing telecommunications contractor — the DOC has been able to spread the tablet program to three building in the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center (JTVCC). Plans are on the table to eventually give all the states approximately 5,000 inmates, says Mr. Troxler.

“We actually had another building at Vaughn go live today,” Mr. Troxler said last week. “We have about four or five more buildings at JTVCC to go, then we’ll be moving it down to Sussex Correctional Institution. It’s our goal to offer it in all the facilities soon.”

GTL didn’t respond to a request for comment.

How it works

At a ratio of about one tablet per six inmates on a housing block, Mr. Troxler says they’re centrally stored on docking stations and are available for use via “signing them out.”

The inmates are able to bring the tablets back to their cells and patronize a select list of curated applications which include entertainment like streaming movies and TV shows, music and games.

There are also educational programs and access to both law libraries and an extensive list of reading material through Project Gutenberg — one of the largest and oldest digital libraries — Mr. Troxler claims.

Wifi (wireless Internet) was recently made available throughout JTVCC during an extensive security camera upgrade, notes Mr. Troxler, but the tablets don’t have free range access to the Internet.

“The services they use are offered through individual apps, it’s not like they can just surf the Internet,” he said.

The tablets themselves can also be used to file greivance reports, medical requests, send emails, make phone calls and video calls.

“The inmates can use pretty much all the services in their cells with the exception of the video visitation,” said Mr. Troxler. “This service only works when the tablets are plugged into their centrally-located docking stations. That way staff can be nearby to ensure that all the normal visitation rules are observed and the inmates stay within guidelines.”

According to Mr. Troxler security is handled mostly by the vendor with DOC supervision. Each inmate must log on to their own tablet accounts via facial recognition software.

Satisfied with protocols

“Security concerns are something we took very seriously and we’re very satisfied with the number of protocols the vendor has in place,” he added.

“It’s something they’ve tested extensively — having really skilled hackers trying and failing to cause trouble with the tablets. The most reassuring thing is that these just don’t have access to the Internet in the traditional way, so what can be done is limited to the applications. As far as the communication over them goes, the vendor has 24-hour monitoring in place and we’re immediately alerted to anything seen as suspicious behavior.”

Assessing Delaware’s current contract, Ms. Bertram notes that the state has been prudent in some aspects of its policy.

“It’s not ideal to see that some companies have the ability to force incarcerated people to agree to any terms and conditions it wants to — thankfully, it’s clear that in Delaware the DOC has to approve the terms and conditions, so there’s a stopgap there,” she said.

“Also, it appears from the contract that the DOC doesn’t any sort of kickback from the service, which is a big relief because when we see corrections agencies taking a commission on private contracts like these it creates negative incentives and it’s something we strongly disagree with.”

However, Ms. Bertram was less complimentary when it came to the fee structure in the state’s program.

“Delaware’s contract stipulates permanent pricing for most things on the order of 5 cents per minute for whatever content you want to access on the tablet unless it’s the free services like the law library and grievance processes,” she said.

“Services we’re looking most closely at when it comes to pricing are the ones that allow incarcerated people to stay in touch with families — that affects the people in prison and their loved ones because it’s been clearly proven that being in contact with family greatly improves someone’s chances of getting back on their feet once they get out of prison.

“In Delaware, unfortunately, it looks like if you want to have a video chat with your family then it’ll cost something like $8 for a half hour of video calling. That seems ridiculously high — how much does a Skype call cost outside of prison? It would not be a major expense for the DOC to eat the cost of things like video chats and electronic messages. That would be a very smart investment to lower recidivism rates and improve prison life.”

Point of caution

Ms. Bertrams most insistent point of caution, however, is to ensure that a service offered through the tablets doesn’t come to replace in-person, physical services that have been traditionally offered at prisons.

Citing South Dakota’s prison system as an example, Ms. Bertram notes that after signing a tablet contract of their own a few years ago, they’ve mostly shuttered their law libraries and removed paralegals and attorneys who used to assist prisoners as a cost-saving measure. Several federal lawsuits, filed by inmates last year, have reportedly resulted.

“Keeping your law library in the prison and continuing to employ paralegals to help inmates while at the same time providing digital access can only be a good thing, we’re not anti-technology,” said Ms. Bertram.

“But, what South Dakota did was roll out tablets while subsequently eliminating the law library — expecting to do so. I would strongly encourage people to push back on or at least question any attempt by the DOC to use tablet technology to replace something that’s already being offered in prisons.”

For his part, Mr. Troxler says resolutely that Delaware’s rollout of tablets has been designed from the beginning to “supplement and enhance” their services, not replace them.

“This is a supplementary thing, we want to expand services and programs, not replace or eliminate anything,” he said. “The tablets are bringing entertainment, education and communication capabilities to the inmates that they didn’t have before, but we also don’t want them just sitting in a cell staring at a screen 24-7. The DOC is adamant about increasing safety and security in our facilities. We’re well aware that there’s value in letting offenders out of their cells to participate in in-person programing like classes and other activities. Participating socially and having that fellowship in a group or face-to-face atmosphere is important to rehabilitation.”

As far as pricing, Mr. Troxler says the DOC has reviewed the pricing in the contract and was satisfied that they’re fair and comparable to those found in other states’ program.

However, he dismissed the complaint about the price mostly on the foundation that the use of the tablets was voluntary, not compulsory.

He also says that because the program is mostly self sustaining, it can offer the inmates services that were previously unavailable.

“Look, some of the stuff we’ve been seeing is terrific,” he said. “On Christmas, there were fathers at Vaughn that could video chat with their families and actually see their kids opening presents.

“On Halloween last year they were watching their kids Trick-R-Treat. It was really neat to see. When they can see that, their whole demeanor changes. They stay connected with their families and it’s a better environment for everyone.”

Having heard some criticism that offering tablets to inmates is indulgent, Mr. Troxler resolutely rejects the idea.

“We’re seeing a marked decrease in negative behaviors and disciplinary write-ups in the buildings where the tablets are live,” he said. “Undoubtedly this is a tool that increases safety and security for everyone in the institution which is what’s most important.

“Offering inmates the opportunity to communicate with family, and pursue education and entertainment in their downtime is helpful to their rehabilitation as well.”

Mr. Troxler notes that his department is currently in the process of compiling data to quantify the decrease in “write-ups” since the introduction of tablets.

Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or igronau@newszap.com

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