Photo Illustration by Elena Scotti/Fusion

In this three-part Tech Behind Bars series, we’re exploring the points of intersection between digital culture and America’s correctional system. Earlier: Inside the prison system's illicit digital world; After years behind bars, can prisoners re-enter a digital society?

Walking through the second floor of the Napa County Jail, in a unit housing roughly 50 of the facility’s 175 medium-security inmates, Bret Prebula is explaining his correctional philosophy. Behind him, an inmate washes himself in a shower stall. Another inmate talks softly in Spanish into a Reagan-era payphone. Fluorescent lights flicker overhead; the white concrete walls muffle any noise coming from inside the cells. The entire place has a drab, sterile feel to it, which makes Prebula's next words come as a surprise.

Advertisement

“We want to be the Google or the Facebook of corrections,” he says. “And what I mean by that is innovation.”

Prebula, the staff services manager at the Napa County Jail, is a second-generation correctional worker. (His father was a correctional officer and watch commander at California State Prison-Solano for more than 30 years.) Unlike prison officials of his father’s generation, who spent their days thinking about how to keep technology out of their facilities, Prebula is trying to bring more technology into his. “The philosophy of the entire department is to utilize technology as much as possible,” he says. “We want [inmates] walking out better than when they walked in.”

The newest part of Prebula's technology plan is a pilot program, beginning this month, that will give inmates access to tablet computers. Prebula sees tablets as a tool to make life behind bars more bearable and, hopefully, give inmates skills that will help keep them from re-offending once they're released.

Advertisement

“It benefits us to be able to give programming to inmates on a variety of levels,” he says. “It kind of lowers everybody’s tension, especially when they first get into custody.”

He can’t just hand out iPads, of course. The tablets being used in the Napa jail are manufactured by a Chicago start-up called Jail Education Solutions, which runs them on a secure, proprietary software platform called Edovo. The tablets can’t be used to connect to the Internet; instead, inmates can connect to a local intranet administered by the correctional facility itself. Using the tablets, they can stream Khan Academy lectures, run cognitive behavioral therapy apps, study for a GED, or take courses from Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous. They can also opt for lighter fare – games and movies, which can be “purchased” with points they earn by completing more educational tasks. (The movie selection on prison tablets isn’t bad — new-ish releases like "Gravity" are available, even though all of the movies are censored for offensive content.)

“We're recreating the internet for them, essentially,” says Brian Hill, the co-founder of Jail Education Solutions.

Typically, inmates rent the tablets for $2 a day through their commissary accounts; at Napa County Jail, however, the tablets will be provided to inmates for free. Even at zero cost, Hill says that convincing prison officials to let tablets inside their walls has been difficult. (“We’re talking about setting up wi-fi networks – you can imagine the heart attacks,” Hill says.) But Prebula seems convinced of the program's safety. “You walk out of the network, and the tablet turns into a paperweight,” he says. “That way, it’s not like they’re going to do anything like smuggle it out.”

Despite the risks associated with bringing computers into prison, the correctional tablet market is heating up. A Florida-based company called JPay is selling its tablet, the JP4, in seven states. The JP4 has many of the same functions as the Edovo tablets, even if it lacks cutting-edge design. (Motherboard called it “clunky and old and not all that intuitive to use,” but conceded that when you're in prison, it's probably better than nothing.) The JP4 runs on AA batteries, has a hard clear plastic shell, and, like the Edovo-based tablets made by Jail Education Solutions, is made of shatter-proof casing to prevent pieces of it from being used as a weapon.

“Usually, when you develop a product, you're not thinking about how you could kill someone with it,” Hill says.

Tech-minded advocates like Hill and Prebula say that technology has gotten secure enough to be used safely in prisons today. And they’re confident that these devices will do more good than harm, by reducing the demand for smuggled cell phones and giving inmates something productive to do while they're incarcerated.

“This is not new to the correctional facility,” Hill says. “Technology exists in the world, and it's tough to isolate a place entirely from it. We're trying to limit the need for contraband by creating greater access in a secure environment."

The other component of Prebula's "Google or Facebook for corrections" strategy is found one floor below, in a room containing a TV monitor encased in black plastic, with a corded phone attached to its side. This is a "video visitation" kiosk — essentially, a computer that can be used for video conferences between inmates and their remote visitors.

“It’s been great,” Prebula says. “Inmates have really embraced it.”

Video visitations may be the hottest tech craze in the American correctional system. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, kiosks like this are now being tested at more than 500 facilities in 43 states. It's easy to see why they're so popular: the technology allows inmates to see their families and friends outside of regular visiting hours, and they save out-of-state visitors from having to make costly trips to the facility. They're good for the jails and prisons, too, since video calls don't require chaperones, and don't carry the risk of contraband being smuggled in. They may even make prisons safer by strengthening inmates' social ties to the outside world — Telmate, one of the companies that provides video visitation units to prisons, says that in the facilities where they have been installed, the average frequency of violent incidents dropped by 15 percent.

In theory, video visitations should be a big win for everyone involved. In practice, however, they're a double-edged sword.

Advertisement

For one, video visitations introduce a whole spectrum of new privacy issues. Last year, a group of Texas lawyers sued Securus Technologies and Travis County law enforcement officials for recording privileged conversations between inmates and their attorneys and turning the recordings over to prosecutors, which they alleged violated attorney-client privilege and the constitutional prohibition on unreasonable searches. (The case against Securus is ongoing, with a trial expected next year.) Renovo Software, which makes a third-party platform for prison video visitations, advertises on its website that "one of the clear advantages of implementing video visitation is that it allows you to easily monitor, record, and interrupt visits."

Video visitations can also be harmful if prison officials decide to go video-only, and do away with in-person visitations altogether, as they've done in places like Washington, DC. A 2014 report by Grassroots Leadership found that in counties where video-only visitation policies had been put in place, the number of violent incidents actually increased. Even the National Institute of Corrections, a supervisory agency within the Department of Justice, objects to video-only policies, since they prohibit the kind of face-to-face contact that is essential to maintaining healthy relationships. "Traditional, in-person visiting is a best practice that should continue in all correctional settings when possible," the agency wrote in a 2014 report.

Another problem with video visitation programs is their expense — up to $1.50 per minute for visitors, although some institutions are able to negotiate lower rates. (Napa County charges visitors $10 for a 20-minute video call.) As with voice calls, prisons typically receive a commission on video calls – in Travis County, Texas, for example, the jail received commissions equal to 23 percent of gross video visitations revenue. These commissions, which help buoy correctional budgets amid state and local cutbacks, create a perverse incentive for prison officials to pick the provider willing to charge the most to inmates. The Prison Policy Initiative, an advocacy group, admonished prisons for "making money off of families desperate to stay in touch" in a January 2015 report. The FCC recently cracked down on prison phone providers charging usurious voice call rates by placing price caps on interstate calls, but there’s no such cap for video calls, meaning that in some cases, companies are trying to make up for lost voice call revenue by peddling new, expensive video systems.

This, then, leads to the billion-dollar question about tablets, video visitations, and other forms of correctional gadgetry. As new technologies spread into jails and prisons, will they be used to aid in the rehabilitation process and help inmates re-integrate successfully into society? Or will they simply be seized by fee-seeking providers as a new way to make money by exploiting a marginalized population?

Advertisement

Prebula agrees that the old model is broken. But he trusts that new providers like Jail Education Solutions will eventually bring down prices and force more predatory players out of the market. “Someone is going to create technology that’s going to allow it to be done cheaper,” he says. “Right now, we’re all kind of beholden to the inmate phone companies.”

The government could step in, as the FCC did to lower prisoners' interstate phone rates. Or prison officials could hitch their visions to an upstart that is willing to do battle with big establishment players— an Uber for corrections, essentially, that uses improved technology and political muscle to upend the old economic model. If new start-ups like Jail Education Solutions can convince prison officials to abandon their symbiotic relationships with companies like Securus and Global Tel*Link — or at least force those companies to offer more equitable terms — they might find that their facilities become safer and more humane, at a lower cost to taxpayers and families.

For that to happen, though, technologists will need more allies within the corrections industry — prison and jail officials who see the long-term benefits of technological adoption as outweighing the potential short-term costs. These people dream of a correctional system in which inmates have affordable, consistent access to all kinds of technology, with enough safeguards in place to prevent these devices from becoming safety hazards. They imagine that, if given a legal way to participate in the digital age, many of the estimated 2.4 million incarcerated people in the U.S. will be smart enough not to blow it. Instead, they'll use technology to connect with the outside world, sharpen their skills, and improve their chances of a successful life after they're released.

Advertisement

“That’s how we see tech in the future," Prebula says. "Tech can change their whole mindset.”