Nearly 200 inmates in the Maine State Prison system will soon have access to secure, digital tablet technology and limited texting. It's part of a new initiative at the Department of Corrections to enhance educational programming and prepare prisoners to reenter society.
The tablets are being provided at no-cost to taxpayers, but there is concern about related fees charged to prisoners and their families.
Around the country tablet technology is making its way into jails and prisons. More than 18 states, including Maine, have adopted some form of specialized tablets that are distributed by vendors like Chicago-based Edovo, a private startup that got off the ground six years ago.
Mitchel Peterman is a company spokesperson.
"To date we've scaled to over 100 facilities,” says Peterman. “We've provided educational resources to over 100,000 incarcerated individuals and we've seen a dramatic rate of growth and adoption within the corrections industry."
Peterman says Edovo, which stands for Education Over Obstacles, has worked with a design firm to create tablet devices that contain bullet-proof glass, shatterproof casing and that can hold up in a correctional setting. In other words, they're tough. And they operate on a secure communication platform that is closely monitored. Prisoners can't access the internet.
What they are encouraged to do, says acting Corrections Commissioner Randy Liberty, is to take part in education and self-improvement programs.
"It allows them to program for whatever their particular need is — substance abuse, mental health...It could be decision-making, risk-taking, someone working on their GED,” Liberty says. “And for every two hours that they do their programming, they get an hour's worth of entertainment. They can watch a movie. They can read a book."
They'll also be able to pursue vocational training for job certifications.
The tablets won't be distributed to individual inmates. Instead, they'll be shared on prison pods. Each inmate will have a unique log-in so they can pick up with courses where they've left off. They'll also have access to a messenger app where they can communicate with friends and family. The first ten messages are free. But after that there's a charge for the communications.
"There's a texting component, and the texting is just like a telephone call for incarcerated facilities,” Liberty says. “When the individual makes a request to someone on the outside — and they can either accept or not — and if they accept the texting process, the inmate or the inmate's family pays for those texts and that's where the company is able to make their money at no cost to the taxpayers."
The cost ranges from $10 a month for 250 messages to $50 a month for 2000. Each message is 160 characters. Joe Jackson of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition says he hasn't seen the specific policy yet or the details of the contract, but he's worried about how prisoners will afford the new texting option.
"That's the part that we feel the most upset about,” Jackson says. “While prisoners are gaining something from this, it feels like they are also going to be the hardest hit when it comes to — and especially lower income families — are going to be the hardest hit when it comes to being able to communicate. So just this cost feels like it adds another barrier to it. But overall, the concept is good."
The prison population is a captive audience dependent on private companies that supply telephone service and goods in prison commissaries around the country. Last year the Prison Policy Initiative produced a report that pegged the cost paid for those services at nearly $3 billion. The prisoner advocacy group found that, increasingly, the cost of corrections is being shifted to incarcerated people and their families.
But Commissioner Liberty says recidivism also carries a high cost. And if training and education can help prisoners avoid coming back into the system, he thinks initiatives like this one can help pay for themselves.
Originally published 5:59 p.m. Jan. 16, 2019