CANON CITY, Colo. (AP) - Until February, Andrew Stiern could only speak with his girlfriend on a phone in a prison day hall while 10 other inmates listened in and waited impatiently in line behind him.
Now the 29-year-old inmate can kick back in the limited privacy of his cell at Four Mile Correctional Center in Canon City and call his girl on a new computer tablet anytime between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. He can also use the same device to listen to his favorite tunes from a streaming cache of 12 million songs, read books or play video games to his heart’s content.
About 8,000 Colorado inmates, including Stiern, are part of a pilot program for Inspire, a program of GLT Corp. that expects to eventually deliver tablets to more than 18,000 inmates in all 20 private and public prisons in Colorado and 1.8 million people jailed across the U.S. Inspire is designed to give inmates access to a wide range of media, including educational programming, but also creates a new revenue stream for GTL, which specializes in inmate telecommunications and payment systems.
Inmates can use the wireless handheld devices when they are not involved in other prison programming, such as GED classes or doing jobs including milking cows in the prison dairy.
“It’s great. I’m kind of the tablet rep guy,” Stiern said while standing in his cell in the west wing of C-Pod, a unit where he and fellow inmates train companion dogs. “When you are in prison, you are cut off from the outside world. You want your mind to be focused on positive things. It’s kind of an escape from this world. These tabs have become a new piece of life in here.”
Colorado is the first state to roll out the Inspire program across all its prisons. Smaller programs were tested in county jails in Arizona and California.
Colorado Department of Corrections directors have embraced the Inspire inmate tablet program, believing that it will reduce friction between rival gangs vying for control of wall phones, occupy inmates who have a lot of time on their hands and eventually allow them to access vocational and educational programming.
Not everyone is sold on the idea. Correctional officers and representatives of victims groups have expressed concerns that criminals will find a way to use the tablets to commit new crimes and that they shouldn’t be showered with such luxuries.
“I’m a little stunned. They are not there to be catered to and offered all the comforts of home,” said Rob Wells, president of Families of Victims of Homicide and Missing Persons. His brother, Sid Wells, was murdered in 1983. “I’m not pleased with it. Some of them are gang members and have been involved in some pretty nasty stuff. They shouldn’t be given something that will give them an opportunity to continue their criminal enterprises in prison. How are they going to monitor this?”
Correctional officers, too, were concerned the tablets could make it easier for members of gangs to communicate to the outside world.
“All of us had our reservations at first. Are we going to be more vulnerable because of this technology? There was a lot of old school mentality,” said Ryan Flores, who has worked in Colorado corrections for 21 years.
Four Mile’s associate warden, Doug Diedrich, said during his 28 years in corrections there has existed an imperative to tightly control the use of electronic devices. Security is the number one issue at prison, he said, but he is convinced that because every text message and phone call is monitored, the Inspire system is no more vulnerable than what already exists.
But how could giving away $270 million worth of tablets to the nation’s criminals possibly be profitable?
In a conference call, Brian Peters, GTL’s executive director of inmate applications and hardware, reluctantly acknowledged GTL’s profit motive. GTL sells inmates subscriptions to the streaming database, which includes an eBook library of thousands of volumes.
Stiern said he paid $6.59 for a two-month subscription to music and games. GTL also charges inmates, their friends and family for each call and text they exchange. Text messages are 25 cents and a 20-minute call runs $2 to $3, Stiern said.
“We don’t know how profitable this will be,” Peters said, “but we know we’re leading the charge and we’ll know first.”
Peters focused on the rehabilitative potential of putting a powerful electronic tool into the hands of inmates.
Colorado inmates will be able to access vocational and educational programming on their tablets, he said. One tablet upgrade will provide live video tutoring by licensed plumbers or electricians who will be able to answer inmate questions about their preferred tools and techniques.
“Education is the single most important factor in preventing recidivism,” Peters said.
The tablets also replace a mountain of pen-and-paper prison communications. They enable inmates to quickly order a Snickers bar from the commissary, file a grievance about high-carbohydrate prison food, notify medical staff in the prison clinic about hepatitis C symptoms or sign up for prison education programs.
Just having the tablet is a privilege already shown to change inmate behavior, said Turner Nashe, GTL’s senior vice president over educational services.
In his cell on a May afternoon, Stiern demonstrated how Murphy, the black Lab/shepherd mix he is training, says hello by raising his left paw. Stiern - serving six years for criminal mischief and variety of parole violations - said he is careful about obeying prison rules so he won’t lose the companionship of Murphy. Likewise the threat of losing tablet privileges is a powerful incentive to toe the line. No one wants to lose their computer for 30 days, he said.
The tablets affect morale, Stiern said. He demonstrated for journalists how he set up a matrix of icons of his favorite music artists and computer games on a tablet screen. He offered a reporter his ear buds so he could hear a song from Kelsea Ballerini’s “The First Time” album. “It’s very good quality, isn’t it?” he said. Listening to music is a great stress reliever, he said.
Diedrich said in the months since the tablets were distributed at Four Mile he has noticed a decrease in tensions that previously arose over access to the wall phone in the day hall.
Stiern says all the inmates know a correctional officer is always listening in on your phone conversations or reading text messages that can be up to 2,000 characters. “You don’t say stupid stuff,” he said.
Nashe said in 2009, when GTL began talking to prison staff about their tablet idea, people were skeptical. “They laughed at us. They thought it was a nice idea but that it was pie in the sky.”
Diedrich said GTL’s system allows prisons to monitor every text or phone call like they always have. In fact, it’s even easier to monitor electronic messages than letters, he said. Employees working in the prison mail room can do bulk scans for gang names, prison slang for drugs and contraband and clandestine activities, like gang leaders ordering beat downs and hits, he said.
Colorado staff members will screen 2,000 text messages a day before allowing them to go to their intended recipients. The tablets are programmed so that inmates can’t communicate with fellow gang members across the prison system, Diedrich said.
Inspire is still early in its implementation buts so far haven’t been any reported instances of abuse of the tablets at Four Mile, he said.
The tablets aren’t connected to the internet, so inmates don’t have an opportunity to troll pornography websites or play violent video games.
“These are games I allow my 4-year-old to play,” Peters said. “The most violent game is, like, ‘Angry Birds.’ “
Flores, the corrections officer, said some inmates have been in prison for decades and don’t even know how to use a cellphone.
“People have to realize that inmates here are going to get out of prison,” Flores said. “This allows offenders to read literature and enhances their programming opportunities.”
Information from: The Denver Post, https://www.denverpost.com
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