Prison inmates’ access to tablet computers to be expanded

Deputy Bureau of Prisons Chief Shane Troxler tries out a new tablet being proposed for Delaware’s inmates. GTL, a Virginia-based corrections technology company, hosted a demo at the DOC’s headquarters in Dover earlier this month to explain the capabilities of their equipment. (Submitted photo)

DOVER — Delaware’s Department of Correction is in the midst of developing a plan that would put Wi-Fi-enabled tablet computers into inmates’ hands.

As part of a limited trial, inmates at Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution have had access to Wi-Fi-enabled tablet computer since October 2016.

According to Deputy Commissioner Alan Grinstead the DOC is in the process of wiring James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna for Wi-Fi as part of the plan to expand tablet access to the prison’s population.

“This process is still in its infancy and there is still a lot of planning and policy writing left to do, but it’s something we’ve been discussing for several years,” he said.

“At this point, I still can’t venture a guess when the tablets will be available. But we’re working on the wiring at Vaughn and hope to have the Wi-Fi live at the housing units fairly soon. To implement the program there are still a lot of policy matters to be considered though.”

Currently, the limited run at Baylor includes 20 tablets provided by GTL — the contractor the DOC is negotiating with. GTL, a Virginia-based “correctional technology company,” already handles the DOC’s current telephone system.

The tablets at Baylor have been in a fixed location — not being used portably — in the law library for the trial period. Inmates have been using them to access law library books, Mr. Grinstead said.

“Right now, there really no different than desktop computers because they’re staying in that room,” he added. “This has been a proof of concept trial. We were examining how the inmates would interact with and use the equipment. So far, the feedback has been positive.”

The eventual plan, according to Mr. Grinstead, includes the DOC providing tablets to each housing unit in its prison intended for communal use. The number of tablets wouldn’t be a 1 to 1 ratio, and would not be “owned” by inmates.

Although the specifics are still being debated, he said inmates would likely be able to return to their cells and use the tablets there to access educational programs, email, video calls with family members, educators and tutors, books, movies and music.

“There are a lot of capabilities that we’re sorting through and deciding on,” Mr. Grinstead said. “We had a demo earlier this month.”

Through its tablet program, GTL provides the equipment but the DOC would need to ensure that the infrastructure is in place to support it. The program would likely sustain itself through inmates’ purchases of selected recreational content.

“We’re not paying for the tablets, the provider would make money based upon usage,” said Mr. Grinstead. “Movies, music and things like that wouldn’t be free. Some educational books would likely be free, but others wouldn’t. Also, DOC would probably pay for certain educational programs, but we’re still unsure to what extent.”

The tablets are off-brand equipment designed specifically for use in prisons. Mr. Grinstead said they are “encased in hard, tamper-proof plastic” shells and wouldn’t have access to the “open Internet.”

“They wouldn’t have any unrestricted access,” he said. “The system comes with built-in security and any access to any website has to be pre-approved. It’s called whiteboarding. They can go to a set list of websites and nowhere else. There are continual security reviews being done by the contractor as well.”

Benefits?

DOC administrators believe that Wi-Fi-enabled tablet access for inmates will increase the amount of beneficial programming available, allow for operational efficiencies and, ultimately, assist in their goal to reduce recidivism.

Because email and video calling would be available on the tablet, access to telecommunication would be maintained and increased, said Mr. Grinstead.
“Phone calls would still be available, but with these devices, it’d probably reduce the amount of inmates waiting in lines to use the phone,” he said.

There are also opportunities to extend the reach and effect of educators, he claimed.

“We’re limited by how many hours a teacher can sit in a class with them,” said Mr. Grinstead. “If we can give them homework or give them somewhere they can access an app and practice their math or English skills we could hopefully increase participation and get more people through the programs to get their GEDs.”

The DOC may also be able to streamline and automate other processes like its “sick calls” and “grievance” systems, he said.

In sum, administrators said they hope that the tablet access can lead to better outcomes for inmates. Mr. Grinstead said that staying in close contact with family is often a strong indicator of whether an inmate will reoffend once they’re released.

“A big part of successful reentry and recidivism reduction is making sure inmates are staying connected to families,” he added. “If we could make video visitation more readily available, they could stay more personally connected with family members that may live too far away rather than just a letter here or there.

“Anything we can do to help maintain family connections is ultimately a win for us and a win for the inmate. Something like 97 percent of these individuals will be back in the community at some point. From our perspective, the reentry process starts the day they arrive in the prison.
“We’re trying to improve their level of education and understanding of their behavior so they can reenter the community as law-abiding, productive, tax-paying citizens.”

Mr. Grinstead said he thinks that more training and demos will take place in the coming months to decide the scope and policy of the new tablet program.

Administrators also plan to tour several other prisons where similar programs have been implemented.

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.