By the end of 2017, the Colorado Department of Corrections plans to distribute electronic tablets to every one of its 19,000 inmates. The handheld devices, which are being provided at no cost to the inmates, can be used for phone calls and messaging, and will eventually offer streaming music and video games, too.
Prisoners won't be going on Facebook, accessing porn sites or stalking ex-girlfriends; the devices come with security features to prevent unauthorized calls or direct Internet access. "The long-term plan is for offenders to use tablets to write grievances, order canteen, participate in programming and view their bank accounts," says DOC spokeswoman Laurie Kilpatrick. "A video-conference system will be installed in each of the facilities as well, making long-distance offender and family video visitation possible and affordable."
The tablets have already been issued to inmates at the Four Mile Correctional Center, the Delta Correctional Facility and the La Vista Correctional Facility, courtesy of the Global Tel-Link Corporation (GTL), which also operates the current prison phone system. Kilpatrick says the inmates will pay nothing for the tablets themselves "unless the offender damages the unit maliciously."
Kilpatrick didn't respond directly to questions about how much the DOC is paying for the tablets or what financial arrangement is involved with GTL, but it's clear that a revenue stream will be created by various usage fees. For example, phone calls will cost twelve cents a minute for domestic calls and fifty cents a minute for international calls (the same as current phone rates in the DOC), while e-messaging with family members will cost 49 cents for each message or reply. Additional costs for music and games have not yet been announced.
Although many prisoners have welcomed the new gear, some worry about price-gouging and wonder how useful the devices will prove to be. The DOC had a previous experiment with tablets that didn't go well; available through a catalogue for $200, with accessories such as memory cards or covers costing up to another hundred bucks, the devices had limited functionality beyond playing music. The new tablets promise much more, but will they deliver?
"Most prisoners feel this is fantastic," reports one inmate in a recent letter to Westword. "What they don't see is that the system just issued a $50 babysitter to all of its prisoners. The average prisoner will play games and music 8-10 hours a day, just like any kid in America. Only they aren't kids; they are men and women who need rehabilitation and education. This buys a lot of safety for prison staff, but what a waste of time for the prisoners. If they provided education, it would be marvelous. Prisoners might just learn something useful and not come back."
Kilpatrick says the DOC plans to use the tablets in future educational programming, "but we have not made it to that phase of our implementation."