Roger Bretz Jr. sat tapping on a tablet Friday morning inside the Polk County Jail, quietly passing the time playing a car racing video game.
Between his shifts in the jail kitchen, Bretz, 55, pays 5 cents a minute to use one of the six tablets available to the 64 inmates living in his cell block. He can read news articles, watch movies, play games, take online classes or — most importantly to Bretz — stay in better touch with his loved ones on the outside.
“Before it was hard to get a hold of them because you had to call or write, if you could remember their phone numbers and addresses,” said Bretz, who was awaiting trial on an OWI charge. Now, he can send a message and get an instant response.
The Polk County Jail began offering the tablets March 9 through a pilot project with Telmate, an Idaho-based company that provides communication services in more than 300 correctional facilities in North America.
This is the first time Polk County inmates have received access to the internet, and the jail is believed to be the first correctional facility in the state to offer inmates access to internet-enabled devices.
“It’s kind of the newest buzz in the correction field,” Polk County’s Assistant Jail Administrator Captain Cory Williams said.
Telmate provides 97 tablets to the jail at no cost. The company owns the devices and collects the cents per minute directly from inmates’ jail commissary accounts.
The tablets have been a popular addition. Polk County inmates have racked up about 30,000 minutes per day since they were introduced.
Some of that time is free, like when an inmate accesses the digital law library or conducts regular jail business. But for other uses, like movies and email, inmates pay between 3 and 5 cents per minute.
Telmate touts the devices as a way for people who are incarcerated to stay connected to their families and friends. It cites studies that say the more inmates stay connected, the less likely they are to reoffend.
Williams echoes the positive role communication with the outside world can have on an inmate. Plus, the tablets also can be used as a reward system.
“Jail is somewhat boring,” Williams said. “We try to provide as much of an educational piece that we can. This is another way we can do that.”
“We have TV and books, but this is just another modern-day tool that we can offer to ensure that behavior is correct.”
Nationally, victims’ rights groups have raised concerns that internet-ready devices could be used by inmates for illegal activities or to further harass or intimidate victims.
Telmate tablets are automatically available to newly booked inmates. As long as they follow the jail’s rules they can continue to access the devices, Williams said.
However, inmates in segregated areas do not have access to tablets. This includes inmates facing discipline, those in protective custody and those with medical conditions that require separation from the general population.
Correctional facilities across the U.S. began experimenting with tablets as early as 2013. In January, the Indiana Department of Corrections proposed equipping every inmate in the state with a tablet.
The Iowa Department of Corrections is exploring the idea at the nine facilities it operates, department spokeswoman Lettie Prell said. The devices would be used by prisoners for programming and to communicate with family, she said.
Right now, offenders in state facilities have no access to the internet. They can use e-readers for educational programs or an email system with an approved recipients list.
The tablets at Polk County Jail allow a user to access a personal email account, but recipients must first agree to receive the inmate’s email before the message is delivered.
Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek, president of the Iowa State Sheriff’s and Deputies Association, said he is not aware of any other county considering the idea.
At the Polk County Jail most of the general population cell blocks are now equipped with a tablet station posted on the wall near a jail officer’s desk. Each station charges six devices. Inmates can check out a tablet by signing in using a pin number and showing a photo identification.
Williams said the tablet system is expected to save jail money on printing costs and staff time. Inmates can now use the tablets to sign up for programs or schedule time to visit a chaplain or get a haircut. The jail will no longer issue printed rule books to inmates or provide some paper notifications.
The free digital law library will also eliminate the jail’s need to purchase a new set of law books each year. That alone should save the county a few thousand dollars, Williams said.
How does it work?
Q: With whom can jail inmates communicate?
This is the first time Polk County Jail offenders have email access in jail.
Inmates can sign in to their existing Gmail or Yahoo accounts or create a new one. Before anyone receives a message, a third-party intervenes and sends a generic email to the recipient on the outside notifying them that an inmate wants to communicate. That person can either accept or reject the communication. This is similar to how the Iowa prison emails system operates.
The jail can monitor the content of emails and block an inmate from emailing certain individuals.
Prior to the tablets, Polk County Jail inmates had three ways to communicate: phone, mail or by scheduling a video chat.
The inmates can’t use the tablets to communicate with one another.
Q: What kind of internet access do inmates have?
Inmates don’t have access to social media sites like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter or even a browser.
They can’t even do a Google search, Williams said.
The tablets are app-based and the jail selects and approves from a list of apps provided by Telmate.
Though wireless, internet access runs through a secure unique virtual private network, or VPN. There’s no access to a cellular network.
Jail staff has the ability to block access for disciplinary purposes.
Q: What kind entertainment can they access?
The following is a portion of the list provided by the company, though the county may restrict access to any of these:
News apps: USA Today, CNN, ABC News, Newsweek, Time
Music apps: Vevo, Grooveshark, Rolling Stone, Live Mixed Tapes, Pandora
Sports: MSN, NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, FIFA, Golf Digest, Tennis, ESPN, Bleacher Report
Health: Help Guide, WebMD, Alcoholism.about.com, Yoga Journal, Mens Health
TV: PBS, Hulu, National Geographic, Comedy Central, Crackle
Entertainment/Games: Over 70 apps including Angry Birds, Archery, Banana Kong, Candy Crush, Chess, etc.
Q: Are communications private?
All of the data collected from the tablets, including communications, belong to Polk County and stored for the life of the contract with Telmate.
Q: How can I electronically contact someone in jail?
Go to www.gettingout.com and sign up. You can message an inmate from your smartphone for a fee.