The debate over prison reform seems sharply divided between those who want to see stricter sentencing and harsher punishment and those who want to move toward a more rehabilitative system. Despite very real differences between these two philosophies, there may be one issue that both sides can agree on – inmate tablets.
Inmate tablets are the most effective inmate management tool I have seen in my 25 years as a corrections professional. Although some would argue that they are a luxury offering that criminals don't deserve, the results we've seen at my facility in Pima County, Ariz, speak for themselves. Since implementing the tablet program, our suicide attempts and ideations are down 66 percent and our successful suicides are down 100 percent. Staff assaults are down 60 percent, and our inmate-on-inmate assaults are down 40 percent as well.
Overall, inmate behavior has improved, partially because inmates are aware they will lose permission for use of their tablet for behaving badly. It is a simple matter of providing the proper incentives for good behavior.
The ability for inmates to make phone calls to their families from their cells, instead of waiting to be let out and rushing to one of the limited wall phones, has drastically reduced stress on the inmates. This has, in turn, radically reduced tensions between detention staff and the inmate population.
Our tablets provide inmates access to anger management programs, education services, employment training – all programs that have been proven to reduce the recidivism rate.
We don't do this to coddle our inmates. We do this to equip them with the skills needed to face life outside of prison. The fact is at some point these inmates will re-enter our communities. It is a question of what kind of person we want living in our neighborhood – a criminal, or someone who can contribute to our society? By promoting technology skills, we are helping inmates learn how to navigate the contemporary world, which involves constant connectivity.
The other benefit to providing education programs is that it's proven to save taxpayers money. A study from Lois Davis of the RAND Corporation found that for every dollar spent on inmate education programs, between four and five dollars are saved on reincarceration costs.
Take just one feature the tablets provide in Pima County: electronic messaging. Before implementing the tablets, three people were tasked with sorting through letters to look for contraband, and our facility could receive thousands of pieces of mail a day. Electronic messaging means less snail mail, which frees up our staff to focus on keeping the jail safe. It also enhances security staff's ability to gain intelligence regarding inmate communications by allowing staff to search for code words and easily monitor all incoming and outgoing correspondence. Furthermore, any inmate with access to electronic messaging who is still receiving postal mail on a regular basis is marked as a red flag, because it could indicate someone is trying to sneak contraband into our facility.
There are certain guardrails that must be put in place when implementing tablet services in a corrections environment. If a tablet program is to be implemented, it must be done so across the entire facility. You can't create a have and have-not scenario in a corrections environment because it causes tension amongst the inmates.
Moreover, facilities must ensure that their tablets are secure. At my facility, there is no internet access available – inmates are utilizing an on-site server with carefully curated content.
My facility is an excellent case study in the positive effect inmate tablet programs can have on a correctional facility's ecosystem and the surrounding community. Inmate tablets present a proven, cost-effective way to make our jail staff safer and prepare inmates to live productive lives upon release.
Sean Stewart is the Corrections Captain at the Pima County Sheriff's Department in Arizona.
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