TWIN FALLS • The era of inmates scratching marks in the wall for each day behind bars are long gone.
For about a year, minimum and medium security inmates at the Twin Falls County Jail have used Adroid tablets to email select family members, access approved Web pages and play games.
The program has been a success, said Capt. Doug Hughes, the jail’s administrator. The tablets, provided through a company called Telmate, connect inmates to the outside world, are an incentive for inmates to behave and make less work for staff, he said. In the future, video visiting will also be done via tablet.
“I do believe its been a very beneficial process for us,” Hughes said.
It’s been so successful that other south-central Idaho jails are trying out tablet computers for their inmates.
Inmates at the Mini-Cassia Criminal Justice Center have used the tablets for several months and once the new Jerome County Jail is built prisoners there will have them too.
Gooding County Sheriff Shaun Gough said he’d like to adopt the tablets for his jail but doesn’t have the budget.
“It’s a great idea,” he said.
Gough said he likes that the tablets are a privilege inmates can work toward.
Like playing cards, dominoes, watching TV or reading, playing games or surfing the Internet on a tablet is just another way for inmates to recreate, jailers say. The privilege costs inmates a few cents per minute out of their commissary funds.
Once the new Jerome County Jail is complete, the county will try out letting inmates use tablets, said Lt. Marrisela Ibarra, the jail’s administrator. Now, the 1970s-era jail is short on technology.
Ibarra said she’s spoken with administrators at other jails using the tablets and likes what she hears. The county plans to break ground on the new jail in March.
It’s important to keep inmates connected to their non-jail lives and families, Hughes said.
“Guys who are just trying to get through life find them helpful,” he said. “They’re staying to themselves. Not everybody who gets put into incarceration is a gangster, thug-like person.”
Initially, inmates would hoard the tablets. But the issue soon self-corrected, Hughes said.
“They’d rather share than lose the privilege.”
When the tablets first arrived, both Hughes and Twin Falls County Sheriff Tom Carter said they’d like to see educational programs and GED testing on the tablets. That hasn’t happened yet, but it’s a possibility, Hughes said.
He’d also like to see some inmates who don’t qualify for group drug and alcohol therapy start recovery steps or assessments via the Web.
“In the old days, inmates were just warehoused,” Hughes said. “We somehow have to reconnect them.”
If a person in jail can keep up with local news and be in contact with family, they’ll be less institutionalized when they leave, he said.
When the tablet program was first implemented, there was some pushback from the community.
“Some people said ‘I’d rather have them breaking rocks,’” Hughes said. “But let me tell you, until they’re sentenced, nobody’s going to be breaking rocks anywhere.”
The majority of inmates in the Twin Falls County Jail are awaiting trial and haven’t been convicted. Many others are awaiting sentencing to be sent to probation or prison. Most of those who are serving time in county jail are there on misdemeanors convictions.
Tablets also benefit jail staff because there is less paperwork being passed between staff and inmates, Hughes said. Federal regulations require inmates have access to several forms of media and tablets are safer than giving inmates newspapers. Paper has long been used behind bars to fashion simple weapons. The tablets and computer kiosks in the jail have also eliminated commissary and other requests formerly made on slips of paper.
Inmates at the Mini-Cassia Detention Center have been using the same Telmate tablets for almost a year, said Cassia County Undersheriff George Warrell. At first, some staff were hesitant.
“We have some that are completely for it and some who are against it,” Warrell said. “… We’re still testing it. But we haven’t had any major issues so far.”
One of Warrell’s biggest concerns was that inmates would try to use the devices stay looped into criminal circles. So far, it doesn’t appear anyone has.
“It’s like with any technology — cellphones or whatever — if there’s a way, they seem to figure it out,” Warrell said. “We’re trying to stay ahead of it.”
Inmates can look at approved sports, news and weather websites along with a law website, Warrell said. One tablet has access to a movie channel.
For the next few months, the jail will continue to assess the benefits. So far, no inmate has tried to use the tablet as a weapon and they haven’t caused a fight, he said.
The same is true in Twin Falls.
“When you give inmates a tool that’s for them, they really respect that,” Hughes said.