More states are signing harmful “free prison tablet” contracts

Tablet computers are delivering a captive audience to profit-seeking companies, while enabling prisons to cut essential services like law libraries. We investigate.

by Mack Finkel and Wanda Bertram, March 7, 2019

Eight states have recently signed contracts with prison telecom companies to provide tablet computers to incarcerated people – a sharp increase since we began analyzing these contracts in 2017. Though many prisons already allow incarcerated people to buy tablets, these contracts provide something different: Tablets for free, ostensibly at no cost to either consumers or taxpayers. (To be clear, these aren’t like the iPads you can buy at a store; they’re cheaply made, with no internet access.)

But as with most state contracts that appear to cost nothing, there is a catch – several, in fact.

First, the “free” tablets charge users at every opportunity, including above-market prices for phone calls, video chats and media. Even sending an email requires a paid “stamp.” Furthermore, our recent analysis of these contracts suggests that they actually put the interests of incarcerated people last, prioritizing cost savings and the provider’s bottom line.

For instance, many of these contracts:

  • Guarantee the Department of Corrections a portion of tablet revenue.
  • Allow tablet providers to alter the prices of services – such as email, music and money transfer – without state approval.
  • Allow providers to terminate tablet services if the tablets aren’t profitable enough.
  • Exempt providers from replacing a broken tablet if they think it was “willfully” damaged – a loophole ripe for exploitation, as prison tablets are cheaply made and break easily.

More details below:

Contract Active since Does the DOC receive a portion of tablet revenue? Can the provider cancel the service for reasons related to profitability? Are the terms of use subject to DOC approval? Will the provider replace broken tablets?
Colorado DOC and GTL August 2015 (suspended in 2018) Yes. DOC earns a flat payment of $800,000 per year. Yes. GTL can cancel the service if there is insufficient tablet revenue, or if more than 10 tablets in any one housing unit need to be repaired. No, DOC does not have to approve the Terms and Conditions. GTL has discretion to determine whether damage was “willful,” and does not have to replace willfully damaged tablets. GTL also does not have to replace more than 5 (or 5%, whatever is greater) tablets in a housing unit every year.
Missouri DOC and JPay March 2017 Yes, DOC earns a 20% commission on songs, albums, movies, ebooks, and games. Yes. JPay can cancel the service if there is insufficient revenue. No. Terms of use not mentioned in contract (and therefore likely not subject to DOC oversight.) Unclear.
New York DOCCS and JPay August 2017 Yes. DOC earns a percent commission on purchases of emails, music, financial services, and other content. No, contract does not specify circumstances in which service can be canceled. No. Terms of use not mentioned in contract (and therefore likely not subject to DOC oversight.) Unclear.
South Dakota DOC and GTL March 2018 Yes. DOC earns a 50% commission on electronic messages and 24.2% on most types of phone calls. Yes. GTL can cancel the service if there is insufficient revenue or if equipment is “subjected to recurring vandalism.” No, DOC does not have to approve the Terms and Conditions. GTL has discretion to determine whether damage was “willful,” and does not have to replace willfully damaged tablets.
Indiana DOC and GTL July 2018 Yes, DOC earns a 10% commission on purchased content (not including phone or video calls made on tablets). Yes. GTL can cancel service in housing units where 10 or 10% of tablets are damaged in a year. Yes, DOC must approve the Terms and Conditions. GTL has discretion to determine whether damage was “willful,” and does not have to replace willfully damaged tablets.
GTL does not have to replace tablets more than once for any given incarcerated person, nor does it have to replace more than 5 or 5% of tablets in a housing unit every year.
Delaware DOC and GTL (pilot program) October 2018 No. Yes. GTL can cancel the service if too many tablets are damaged. Yes, DOC must approve Terms and Conditions. Unclear.
Maine DOC and Edovo December 2018 No. No, contract does not specify circumstances in which service can be canceled. Yes, DOC must approve Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy. The facility has discretion to determine whether they or Edovo will replace damaged tablets. Edovo does not have to replace more than 5% of tablets for free every year.
South Carolina DOC and GTL January 2019 No. No, contract does not specify circumstances in which service can be canceled. No. Terms of use not mentioned in contract (and therefore likely not subject to DOC oversight). GTL is required to repair or replace damaged tablets or equipment, regardless of the cause of damage or loss.

Table 1. Findings from our analysis of eight “no-cost” contracts between state Departments of Corrections and tablet providers. Contracts are listed from oldest to newest. For more on GTL and Securus (JPay), the predominant tablet providers, see our recent report State of Phone Justice. In this table, “Active since” denotes the date that installation of tablet equipment in the correctional facility began.

Providers and DOC officials often describe free tablets as a gift to incarcerated people, but they more closely resemble a corporate investment than a gift. For the companies, free tablets with expensive services more than pay for themselves down the line. And for prison administrators, tablets pave the way for the elimination of essential services. We’ve already seen prisons eliminate:

  • Law libraries. South Dakota eliminated its paralegals and physical law library after rolling out tablets. A subsequent lawsuit alleged that the tablet software meant to replace the law library is often unusable, and deprives incarcerated people of meaningful access to the courts.
  • Physical books. Last year, Pennsylvania ended book donations to incarcerated people in favor of costly e-books, many of which were lifted directly from the free online library at Project Gutenberg. New York and Maryland also tried to end book donations (before public pressure forced them to backtrack), and one large Florida jail even took away Bibles, replacing them with low-quality e-Bibles on tablets.
  • Postal mail, which prisons can eliminate in favor of digital mail scans (as Pennsylvania did) and paid electronic messaging.

All this being said, there is nothing inherently wrong with tablet technology, in or out of a prison setting. It’s certainly possible to imagine using tablet technology to substantially improve prison life. But before states can write better contracts, they – and the public – must learn to distinguish truly innovative policies from high-tech ploys to cut costs.

Wanda Bertram is the Communications Strategist at the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact)

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