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Spokane inmates to get use of tablet computers

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story reported incorrect numbers for the amount of tablets the Spokane County Jail expects to receive, and the number that will be released by Global Tel Link in the coming year. The story has been updated to correct those numbers.

Spokane County Jail inmates will soon have access to tablet computers.

The move is part of a rollout by Global Tel Link, the company that provides phone services at the jail.

“They’ll run on the company’s own secure network, that our officers will have access to,” said jail commander John McGrath.

The program won’t require Spokane County to put down any money, McGrath said. The jail will accept a smaller commission from Global Tel Link on each phone call made by inmates until it has paid off the cost of the new system, McGrath said. There will be no change to the charges assessed families to phone their inmates, he added.

The tablets limit an inmates’ access to certain preapproved applications and services, according to Nirav Parikh, GTL’s Senior Product Manager for Mobility and Managed Access, who responded to questions via email.

“That secure operating system doesn’t have some of the features that are typical to commercial operating systems,” Parikh wrote. “For example, the tablets have no settings interface, ensuring that inmates cannot modify any of the settings, and the tablets do not feature a Web browser.”

McGrath put it more bluntly: “They won’t be getting on Facebook.”

Inmates will be able to file grievance complaints, order items from the commissary and phone their families using prepaid cards from inside their cells. The company pitches the devices as a way to save money and waste on paper forms for jail services and give inmates more access to their families, which it says reduces recidivism.

The tablets also have the potential to save costs for the county, which oversees jail operations, Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke said. He said he trusted McGrath and jail staff to introduce the tablets and hoped to receive more information as the rollout occurs.

“There are constitutional requirements that we have to allow inmates access to law libraries and things like that,” Mielke said. “We should ask, is this a cheaper alternative than a library to deliver books and periodicals?”

The tablets also come with the option to turn on educational software, which can teach an inmate a trade or some other lesson. Entertainment options are also available, including streaming music and movies, which can also be toggled on or off by jail staff.

McGrath said the jail is in talks to receive one device per inmate, which could total about 900 tablets. They will be checked out to inmates in the morning and collected at night. Inmates who have disciplinary issues or who are on watches for violent behavior would not be issued tablets, he said.

Parikh said the company does not view tablets as a luxury for inmates, but rather as a way for those in jail to keep up with communication technology. The tablets also improve security by limiting the amount of contraband that could come in via “snail mail,” he wrote.

“We believe that tablets will become more accepted in our market as their value to the facilities and populations we serve is proven,” he wrote.

Global Tel Link has already distributed the tablets to Alameda County in California, which includes the cities of Oakland and Berkeley. Sgt. Daniel Dixon, a spokesman for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office that oversees the county’s jails, said two of the tablets have broken after they were accidentally dropped.

“For issuing 90 tablets a day for over a year, that’s a pretty good breakage rate,” Dixon wrote in an email.

The Alabama-based Global Tel Link has come under fire recently for charging what many call exorbitant rates. After the company was mentioned in the opening credits for the widely popular podcast “Serial,” which told the story of a federal inmate largely through taped conversations, Bloomberg calculated that the 40 hours of phone calls used in the show would have cost its producers more than $2,500 in fees to the company.

The Federal Communications Commission addressed the issue last year, passing a new federal rule that capped the cost of a 15-minute phone call at $3.75. But consumer groups and activists still say companies, including Global Tel Link, charge fees that make calling inmates economically impossible for some families.

Global Tel Link says it serves 1.3 million inmates in more than 2,400 detention centers throughout the United States, including federal prisons. The company plans to release up to 50,000 tablets in the next year, Parikh said.


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