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Inmates, tablets: Perfect pairing or potential problem?

Commission must make decision

By ZOË WATKINS - zwatkins@t-g.com
Posted 12/31/22

Before the Bedford County Board of Commissioners votes on whether to allow inmates at the Bedford County Jail to have smart tablets, what are the pros and cons of such a decision?  

Lt. …

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Inmates, tablets: Perfect pairing or potential problem?

Commission must make decision


Before the Bedford County Board of Commissioners votes on whether to allow inmates at the Bedford County Jail to have smart tablets, what are the pros and cons of such a decision? 

Lt. Chris Cook is the programs director at the jail and believes providing tablets could go a long way in providing educational opportunities. 

He said jail administrators have been thinking about providing tablets for two years now. 

If approved, the jail will have a three-year contract with the internal system provider. A common system provider is Securus Technologies. 

“There is no cost to the county anywhere,” said Cook. 

How it works

The system would work exactly like a commissary (a store within a correctional facility) or like the phones or video visits inmates have. According to Cook, the program charges the inmates an amount to offer the service. The county then gets a certain percentage of that money, Cook explained. Inmates are essentially paying for the tablet’s service. 

States like Connecticut, New York, and New Hampshire began providing tablets to inmates in 2018 and many wardens have said the environment of prison is calmer and less tense, according to Cook. Locally, Warren County and several East Tennessee counties have implemented the tablets program. 

On the downside, “People we talked to all say the same thing, the tablets are a headache,” said Cook. This is because the smart devices have to be taken up every day and charged and then returned. 

Jail administrator Ronald Prince explained that the tablets would be distributed to inmates at 6 a.m. and then collected at 10 p.m. during headcount to be charged overnight. 

“That gives officers time to inspect them and to make sure nobody’s breaking them because if they break them, they lose their privilege to the tablet,” said Prince. The service company uses their own infrastructure and replaces tablets if damaged. 

Cook added, “But everybody told us, it definitely reduces the stress level in the jail. It gives them something to do.” 

Different view

However, District 1 County Commissioner Eric Maddox believes providing tablets to inmates could reap unintended consequences. 

“A tablet will allow them the opportunity to act on those things they think,” said Maddox. 

He said states like Georgia and Colorado have retracted the tablets after facing issues with inmates breaking the tablets and taking the batteries out of the tablets to be used for other devices. 

Maddox brought up the point at the Dec. 20 Law Enforcement Committee meeting that this would be a for-profit program. For instance, if an inmate purchases a movie or game, the county makes money off of that purchase. 

Maddox also questioned whether inmates could “root” the devices, which is where they erase the user interface so the device can be used for whatever they want. 

“For me that is a concern,” said Maddox. “They’re still based on an Android system. And that Android system is very antiquated, which makes it even quicker to root that system.” 

These devices will not be hooked up to Bedford County servers. Rather, they will be hooked up to an internal system, according to Prince. 

Cook said inmates will only be able to access the preloaded apps and educational material provided on tablets that are transparent (so contraband can’t be hidden). Essentially, they can’t just click on Google and go from there. 

According to Cook, these tablets will also be constantly monitored while shift sergeants and admins will also have their own tablets to monitor the inmates’ activity. Cook explained if an inmate is caught misusing the device on multiple occasions, the privilege will be taken away. 

Cook said if an inmate does “root” the system, then the internal provider will flag them for misuse. The jail is already monitoring inmate phone calls. “We do this stuff now,” said Cook. 

More opportunities 

According to the Tennesse Department of Corrections, 94% of incarcerated people in Tennessee will be released in three years. 

“And I ask myself, what kind of person are we releasing back into our community?” said Cook. 

“If it was your family member in jail, would you want them to rehabilitate themselves or be in the same conditions or worse when they get out?” 

Somewhere around 95% of inmates are in prison for drugs and addiction. “Whether they’re selling or buying or stealing it all comes back to addiction,” Cook said. 

Last spring, the Bedford County Jail implemented the MRT program, which has successfully helped inmates change their behavior. Cook said he would like to see programs be available to the 200 or so inmates. 

“Anytime I’m starting a new program, I always have to weigh the consequences a person doing something versus the benefit of the majority of our inmates,” said Cook. 

Prince said the selection of programs includes a library, GED classes, and job applications. “They fill out the applications on the tablet and it matches them with employers that hire felons,” said Prince. Some of the programs, like the GED classes, are free of charge, according to Prince. 

Cook added, “They’re filling that boredom with something productive.” 

Not to mention, the inmates could have access to the “outside world” by keeping up with the news and having limited contact with loved ones. 

The recommendation will be voted on at the next Board of Commissioners meeting on January 10.