MARCH 20, 2017 INDIANAPOLIS — A plan to put a tablet in every Indiana inmate’s hands could help offenders stay connected with their families and improve their education, which are important ways to keep them from returning to prison.
But the plan is also raising questions about fairness.
Could a technology company providing specialized tablets made for prison environments take advantage of captive buyers to price gouge on purchases for games, movies and music?
Those are some of the benefits and possible pitfalls of an Indiana Department of Correction technology proposal filed in January. The proposal also calls for a secure network and electronic kiosks across the prison system’s 23 facilities.
Depending on which company is selected, offenders could use the tablets to access their classwork and self-help materials 24 hours per day. They could more easily order from the commissary, and sift through legal research.
They also could use their tablets to pay for entertainment — for a still-undetermined price, with that money going to a private company while the state keeps a 10% cut.
That’s how IDOC expects to pay for the tablets, while hoping a vendor would front the costs so taxpayers don’t have to. Then the vendor would be reimbursed and earn a profit, as inmates buy music and movies.
The state is still accepting applications and will negotiate with vendors, so some specifics — such as potential fees to inmates — are unknown.
William Wilson, an IDOC executive director, emphasized that the department simply wants to help offenders with its tablet program — and that any fees collected would be used to reduce the reliance on tax dollars. Charging fees that inmates couldn’t afford would defeat the purpose of the proposal.
IDOC officials also expect to use entertainment to reward good behavior. For example, an offender could be encouraged to stop racking up bad-conduct reports in order to play more games.
“Historically, corrections has always been based on consequences,” Wilson said, “but what we’ve learned is that sometimes through positive reinforcement you gain better performance, better behavior.”
The tablets most likely wouldn’t be the iPads or Kindles you see at home. There are companies that develop tablets and software specifically for use in prisons and jails. They still have touchscreens and apps, but the devices come with much more security and features that can be controlled by prison officials.
One company, San Francisco-based Telmate, makes a tablet that’s used in more than 20 states, including in Indiana jails in Marshall and Monroe counties. Craig Diamond, the company’s marketing director, noted that Telmate tablets are the only devices able to communicate with the company’s wireless hotspots installed inside facilities, preventing unwanted connections.
Each corrections facility has the ability to offer a free mode, allowing offenders to look through law library materials or jail rules, Diamond said. Officials can also decide to make certain uses cost money.
Another company with an Indiana connection, New York-based American Prison Data Systems, is behind a tablet program in the Madison Juvenile Correctional Facility, the state’s only facility for girls.
There, the tablets are primarily used for teaching, said Samantha Goldsmith, special education coordinator. The devices can’t connect to the internet and don’t have cameras, and all content has been previously approved by teachers.
Using articles, photos, video and music gives teachers more tools when delivering lessons.
“It lets us differentiate our instruction and bring different things into the classroom that we wouldn’t be able to bring in before,” Goldsmith said.
Wilson envisions similar successes across the corrections system. He talked about the simple act of an offender contacting a case manager. Right now, that communication is through pen and paper, but offenders need training before returning to their communities, he said.
“If we don’t prepare an offender to go out in the world and do an e-application, have we really prepared them for what is at stake?” Wilson said.
Training goes beyond technological savvy, though. Wilson noted the benefits of IDOC offering substance abuse and anger management programming through the tablets, and allowing inmates to study and prepare for tests outside of the few hours allotted for computer labs and kiosks.
“Our goal is to make sure that when these guys do go back to their communities, that they can be a contributing member,” Wilson said. “If we don’t allow offenders to have real-world access to education, to programming, to electronic devices — then we’ve become part of the problem.”
All of this is key to reducing recidivism, which hovers around 35% in Indiana, according to IDOC data through 2015.
Todd Clear, a professor at Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice, said many offenders face several technological obstacles when they leave prison.
“They don’t know how to download stuff, they don’t know how to click on links, they don’t know how to search,” Clear said. “But anything that would promote that skill would be a welcome innovation in the context of a prison because the people will come out more able to navigate the contemporary world which involves connectivity all the time.”
He added: “The big recidivism reduction program in prison is education. Nothing comes close to it.”
Aside from the educational component, though, Clear cautioned against what could happen when private companies are given the opportunity to profit from offenders, which is what would occur if an inmate pays for entertainment.
It’s not automatically a problem, Clear said, but there’s a risk it could become one.
“Obviously businesses love the idea to be able to exploit all this, and I would be very careful about how I would make this available to people inside,” he said.
In 2014, for example, a Center for Public Integrity investigation found that private companies often charge steep fees to inmates for basic services, such as providing toiletries or sending money. Those companies pass on a cut of the revenue to prison systems.
The Indiana tablets proposal carries similar requirements.
It’s no different from many of the services provided by IDOC’s existing electronics vendor, Florida-based JPay. To send up to $20 to an offender costs $3.95 if handled online, according to JPay’s posted rates. The state then collects a 25-cent cut, according to the state’s contract with the company.
Kristin Casper, a public affairs officer with the Indiana Public Defender Council, said she’s concerned about offenders facing added fees for tablets. She wants to see a fee structure before the state agrees to a contract — and she wants to make sure existing free services don’t begin costing money when tablets are introduced.
Her agency represents the state’s public defenders and their clients, many of whom end up serving prison time. If offenders lose in this — and find themselves paying extra to call their families, for example — it could affect their relationships outside of prison.
“There’s so much potential for this to be abused,” Casper said. “That’s our biggest issue with this.”
To ensure inmates aren’t taken advantage of, it’s up to IDOC to closely monitor bids from vendors and to thoroughly understand their business models, said Bryce Peterson, a researcher with the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute.
When a vendor has a monopoly over a service or item, Peterson said, controls are needed to ensure costs are appropriate because there’s no free market at work.
“This is such a relatively new thing in corrections, so there’s not a lot of evidence out there on the best way to do this,” Peterson said.
Vendor applications are due by April 24. IDOC hopes to see some implementation by the end of the year, Wilson said.