How People in Prison Really Use TechnologyReading Time: 7 minutes
We Surveyed People in Prison About How They Use Technology. Their Answers Paint a Glitchy Future., We surveyed incarcerated people about how they used state-distributed tablets. Their answers paint a glitchy future., How people in prison use tablets from c
This story is published in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom focused on higher education. Subscribe to College Inside, an Open Campus newsletter on the future of postsecondary education in prison.
Calculator. Word processor. Alarm clock. iPod. Mobile phone. Paperweight. These are just a few of the roles that tablets play in the lives of the people now using them in prison. According to the companies who make these tablets, they have around a million users in prisons and jails across the U.S.
Over the past decade, corrections departments have handed out these personal devices—which are part of a billion dollar prison communications industry—to the prison population. They’ve been pitched as educational and entertainment tools, connectors to family and friends, and a path toward digital literacy.
And their role is only poised to grow. More college-in-prison programs moved online during the pandemic, and an increasing number of tech companies are interested in business opportunities created by the return of Pell Grants for people in prison in July.
While tablets have been a game changer for some, others who use these devices behind bars say they often amount to little more than digital babysitters. When Open Campus surveyed more than 80 people in prison about their experiences with tablets, we found that the promises of this technology often fall short.
User experience varies widely across systems and states. Some people are able to use their devices to conduct legal research, listen to TED Talks, watch Khan Academy videos, and draft journalistic articles. A number of colleges have also started to offer for-credit classes on the communication tablets, but the uptake has been slow.
The two biggest players in the industry, Securus and Viapath, have recently attempted to rebrand themselves as education providers, pointing to educational content on their devices. Securus, for example, said it has partnered with seven state corrections departments to offer classes through a dozen colleges. Since 2015, more than 1,600 incarcerated students have earned degrees using Lantern, Securus’ learning management system.
The vast majority of users, however, say that they use tablets primarily for entertainment and communication. And even for those who have access to more comprehensive content, buggy apps, tech glitches, and unresponsive customer service often get in the way.
Take Atif Rafay’s experience. His Securus JP6 tablet, issued to him in Washington state, lacks some of the basic functions that are central to writing, learning, and working—which is why he doesn’t view it as providing ‘real education access,’ despite the fact that he uses it ‘constantly.’
Many of the normal features that people on the outside take for granted are missing on his tablet: no copy-and-paste option except in his own message drafts, no word processor, no external keyboard, and no recourse when movies he’s paid for don’t stream. The only way he can save text is as a draft in his messages folder, which often disappears if the system crashes. Still, having access to LexisNexis for legal research is ‘precious,’ he said.
Rafay spends around $130 a month on his tablet, mostly on phone calls, which cost around $1 for 20 minutes. He wouldn’t actually mind paying for access to more content. ‘I would pay $50 a month—or half of all I earn—for real education access,’ he wrote in response to our survey. ‘It’s fine to charge money, but not when you are disabling our devices and preventing us from learning, writing, and working.’
Corrections departments are the gatekeepers for any content on the tablets, and they ban everything from R-rated movies to e-books on topics ranging from coding to anti-racism. The same tablet can have much different content available depending on the state and even based on security level within the same facility.
Still, people in prison have found creative workarounds. Brian Bragg, who is incarcerated in Wisconsin, said that his tablet from the Advanced Technology Group doesn’t have a notebook app. So to save notes, he uses a game that saves text, or even the personalizable labels on the tablet’s alarm clock.
The poor user experience often discourages people from accessing available educational content. ‘The operating system is so clunky that no one wants to log out/log in just to explore what else is there,’ wrote H.L. Tapia in Ohio, who asked to go by her initials, about her Viapath tablet.
People on the outside are used to toggling between apps with the swipe of a finger, but Tapia said that she has to log out and back in every time she switches between an educational app, the messaging system, or the music player through a multistep process that involves entering two different numbers, doing facial recognition, and clicking through the terms of service. That would be like having to restart your phone and manually enter your username and password every time you wanted to switch between Gmail and Spotify. (Multiple Viapath users reported the same challenge. In a statement, Viapath said that users can switch between apps in some cases, depending on if they are using free or paid profiles.)
The log-in process, meanwhile, can take anywhere between 30 seconds—when the Wi-Fi signal is strong—to five minutes, Tapia said. The ability to log on also ebbs and flows with the prison’s schedule. The tablets go offline periodically throughout the day and have a reset every night at midnight. Users often complain about connectivity issues, regardless of vendor, and some said they couldn’t use the tablets in their cells due to weak Wi-Fi.
This clunky user experience is not at all inevitable, said Patricia Prewitt in Missouri, which uses Securus tablets. Accessibility is also a major issue. ‘I was a coder for the Missouri Dept of Corrections for 20 years and know this can be much better,’ she wrote. ‘We wish the tablets were bigger for the visually impaired and elderly, but beggars can’t be choosers.’
Another frequent complaint among the incarcerated people we surveyed was the cost. The average daily wage in prison, remember, is just 86 cents, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, and there are states that don’t pay incarcerated people for their labor at all. In some states, the tablets themselves are distributed for free, with the idea that the tech companies will recoup the costs by charging for entertainment and communication services. Sometimes, prisoners don’t receive individual tablets and have to check out shared tablets for a few hours at a time. In other places, people have to purchase the tablets themselves. (A spokesperson from Securus said the majority of their partner agencies provide tablets at no charge to incarcerated people, but for those that do have to purchase tablets, the cost does not exceed $130. A Viapath representative said they do not typically charge for tablets.)
Prices for services vary, too. In some states, people pay by the minute. Elsewhere, there are monthly news, music, and movie subscriptions. California, for example, provides its prison population 20 free messages per week and charges 5 cents for each additional message. People can purchase a 30-day subscription to a news and sports app for 75 cents and a radio and music app for $5.49. In North Carolina, prisoners can purchase packages of minutes, such as $15 for a package of 1,500 minutes for entertainment and messaging. (Both states use the same provider, Viapath, which said it sets rates for services ‘by reviewing the requirements of the competitive bid process’ from corrections departments.)
Costs were a source of constant frustration among those we surveyed. ‘The tablet was something to be excited about, until you realized you had to pay $2.15 for one song, or $1.99 per episode of your favorite show,’ Courtney Quillen in Oklahoma wrote.
There were also strong opinions about the entertainment libraries. ‘The only movies offered are PG13 or PG,’ wrote a man in Rhode Island (who did not consent to using his name). ‘I am an adult and I don’t think that … watching rated R movies with violence, swearing, and the occasional left boob is going to cause me to reoffend.’
In general, these tablets offer a stripped-down version of free world technology, with messaging interfaces more reminiscent of AOL than Gmail. The secure messaging isn’t really email; friends and family have to create an account on an external website and request to be added to someone’s contact list. They, too, pay per message.
Sometimes, though, the tablets are fun. In North Carolina, incarcerated men made a game out of emoji collecting—sort of like an inside version of Pokémon Go, but with the goal of catching all the smileys. The emoji characters aren’t available on the keypad, but about a year ago, the men discovered they were able to cut and paste emoji from news articles and then save them in their dictionaries on their Viapath tablets with a label.
‘Say I saved a unicorn emoji and attached it to the word ‘fantasy’ in my personal dictionary, whenever I begin to type the word ‘fantasy’ that appears with the emoji in the suggested words above the keyboard,’ Lyle C. May, who is incarcerated in North Carolina, told Open Campus a few months ago. May said one guy collected around 225 emoji. ‘It cost a lot of battery life and minutes in a bundle to do it, but the emoji gave messages character,’ he said.
Andre Anderson in Minnesota said that the lack of tablet accessories has also given him a new side hustle. He makes tablet holders out of cardboard and tape that he sells for $5 each. ‘They look like a 6 inch equilateral triangle with a storage space for the rolled-up rubber keyboard, charger, and earphones,’ he wrote in response to our survey.
A few people noted that having access to tablets made the prison environment less chaotic because it reduced tension over phone access and helped keep people occupied. Others, however, worried that the tablets promote complacence. ‘It gives me an example of what my wife and son have told me about everyone just on their phones,’ wrote William Batton, who is incarcerated at a federal prison in Minnesota. ‘We call it ‘tablet zombie syndrome’ here.’
People surveyed also said that while tablets are a poor substitute for free world technology, having access to any kind of device provides baby steps toward teaching digital literacy; knowing how to use technology reminiscent of the early aughts is better than not having used any tech at all, especially for people who have been in prison for decades. It’s particularly crucial for people reentering society, who may have never used a smartphone or filled out an online job application.
And like everything else in prison, there’s no freedom of choice—you have to take what you can get. As Bragg in Wisconsin put it: ‘There is nothing good about this tablet other than the fact that we actually have one.’
Maddison Hwang and Lily Barajas contributed to this project.
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