Allowing inmates to stare at computer tablet screens for hours each day may be just the ticket for creating calm, orderly cellblocks, prison officials say.
But tablets, growing in popularity in prisons nationwide, also can help inmates advance their education, connect with family and prepare them for life in the technology-saturated outside world, officials say.
In Connecticut, which plans to introduce tablets in its prisons this summer, Correction Commissioner Scott Semple said officials are learning from other states that cellblocks become much quieter after tablets are introduced.
“Just like when you walk in the mall, everyone is looking down at their phone,” he said.
The devices, which are transparent so contraband can’t be hidden in them, won’t be hooked to the internet, but to an internal system. They will be preloaded with educational materials, including books, educational videos and games.
Inmates will also be able to use them — for a price — to send emails and make monitored phone calls to those on their approved communications lists. They will also be able to buy music, video games and other items to load onto the machines from kiosks in the prisons.
The company that provides the tablets will make a profit selling those materials, allowing the state to get the machines at no cost.
“We’re trying to increase engagement opportunities for a population, because sometimes there is down time in prisons,” Semple said. “We’re also trying to keep them exposed to technology, because we hear from people that when they go back into society, the technology is so different that they struggle.”
Connecticut got the idea from similar programs in Georgia and Colorado, Semple said.
Miramar, Florida-based JPay, one of the major tablet providers to prisons, said it has put them in 13 states so far. Prison officials estimate tablets are used in more than 10 percent of correctional facilities nationwide.
In January, New York announced plans to provide tablets to 51,000 inmates, and in April, New Hampshire signed a five-year contract with Reston, Virginia-based Global Tel-Link to provide tablets there.
Anthony Plant, 27, of Lancaster, New Hampshire, served 21 months for selling drugs. Tablets, he said, kept him in touch with relatives and eliminated conflicts among inmates vying for their once-a-day use of the phone.
“Talking with my family gave me a sense of keeping my head straight and motivated me to keep doing what I’m doing,” he said.
Connecticut, which has about 13,500 inmates, expects to finalize its contract with a provider this summer.
The programs do have critics.
Questions have been raised about whether the tablets could lead prisons to decrease in-person visitation and whether there is enough regulation of private providers to prevent price gouging.
“If we believe that people in prison would benefit from resources that enrich their lives and allow them to contact their loved ones more, we shouldn’t make those benefits contingent on who can pay, especially since we’re talking about people who are disproportionately very poor,” said Wanda Bertram, with the Prison Policy Initiative, a think tank.
And Connecticut state Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, a co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, said he doesn’t understand why the state would give priority to criminals over, say, public school students.
“These folks have committed really bad crimes that have consequences and victims,” he said. “It bothers me as to what message we’re sending.”
Plant said that he understands that criticism, but that the tablets, especially their educational content, are an important rehabilitation tool.
“If you don’t want things like this, then change the name from the Department of Corrections to the Department of Holding,” he said. “Because that’s all you are doing.”
Two lawsuits filed by South Dakota inmates allege tablets are prone to malfunctions and don’t provide promised access to legal databases, making them a poor alternative to the law libraries they replaced.
The Colorado Department of Corrections said has had to deal with security issues, such as improper sharing of devices and inmates removing a metal strip from an early model to make weapons, said spokesman Mark Fairbairn.
But, he said, overall it has been positive, and game and music subscriptions have brought in more than $53,000 to the department’s commissary service.
In Connecticut, the plan is to begin handing out the tablets in in the highest-security prisons. Because they are a privilege, Semple said, they can be an incentive for inmates to behave.
Pennsylvania introduced tablets in 2016. Inmates can buy them from Global Tel-Link for just under $150. About 16,000, or a third of the state’s inmate population, have done so.
The Pennsylvania corrections department is still collecting data on violence or other conflicts, said Shirley Moore Smeal, the department’s executive deputy secretary. But prison superintendents tell them the impact has been positive, she said.
“It does lead to a better environment for the population,” she said. “It gives them something to look forward to. It’s something that’s constructive for them, and that means it’s constructive for the institution itself.”
The state, she said, is also looking into providing some tablets that can be loaned to prisoners who cannot afford them.
More than 70,000 people have enrolled educational programs offered on JPay’s tablets, earning more than 34,000 college credits, spokeswoman Jade Trombetta said. More than 4 million courses and 5 million education videos have been downloaded.