Free Tablet PC's For NY's Prisoners Rankles Some

Feb 2, 2018

The New York state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision announced a new program this week to give inmates in state prisons free tablets.  Some area lawmakers oppose the plan.

JoAnne Page is president and CEO of The Fortune Society, an organization that helps people trying to rebuild their lives after incarceration.   "Anything that helps get people comfortable with using technology is greatly important, because it greatly increases their job prospects. When people are locked up they fall way, way, way behind in terms of the technological skills that other people develop. And having a tablet can make a difference in that."

The devices come preloaded with educational material and apps allowing inmates to file grievances and report incidents. Inmates could also place commissary orders through the devices.

Additionally, inmates will be able to purchase approved media including music, e-books and videos, and can sign in to a secure e-mail network to communicate with family and friends. Again, Page:   "I think it could make a big difference in those three areas. Communication with family and loved ones, access to educational materials, and just building technological familiarity."

Some lawmakers are dead-set against the plan. Among them: Democratic  state Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara of the 111th district, who says resources should go elsewhere.   "My son Michael lives with autism and he needs a computer tablet as a communications tool. These tablets should be going to help kids like him and all New Yorkers with developmental disabilities that need them. Not prisoners. On principle, they are being given an item that many of the families I represent do not have. And at a time when public schools are struggling with shortfalls and student loan debt is increasing, these tablets would go a long way for high school students here in the Capital Region and could also help those trying to get through college. They should not be used to enhance the prison experience for criminals where there is already access to libraries and desktop computers."

"It doesn't always have to be an 'us versus them' argument. It would be great to provide free tablets to people suffering from disabilities, but that doesn't make it a bad idea to provide free tablets to prisoners,” says Karen Murtagh, executive director of Prisoners Legal Services of New York.   "Why would anyone be opposed to increasing the safety and security of prisons? This protects the prison staff as well as prisoners. Other states that have been using this technology have reported that it has made their prisons and jails safer in ways they could have never imagined."

The tablets will be available beginning this summer. Attempts to reach Department of Corrections and Community officials were unsuccessful. Spokesperson Patrick Bailey tells Utica's WKTV that the tablets are shatterproof, not made of glass, and that the program has been piloted, on a smaller scale, in some of the state's prisons, without incident.

A woman who answered the phone at DOCCS confirmed the tablets do not possess internet capabilities and will be provided at no cost to taxpayers through a contract with a privately held corrections-related service provider known as JPay, a for-profit company that charges inmates and/or their contacts to use its services.