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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

This article was updated on November 3, 2020 with details about prison tablet contracts in Vermont and Connecticut.

Eleven 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? Example of service charges on 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. A digital music subscription costs $19.99 per month.
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. A subscription to NewsStand, an app that allows one to read the news, costs $5.95 per month.
Vermont DOC and GTL** April 2017 Yes. The contract specfies that the DOC receives 32% of commissary sales, but it is unclear what percent of tablet media sales are paid to the DOC. Unclear. The contract does not specify revenue metrics as cause for termination. Tablet usage tracking/monitoring is required in the contract, and the state determines what limited number of functions are provided, but the contract does not specify terms of use. Unspecified. The contract indicates that GTL will provide the state with their company repair procedure policy. 1 week of streaming music: $7.99; 30 day access to game center: $5.99
New York DOCCS and JPay August 2017 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.) Unclear. Sending an email requires paid “stamps” starting at $0.35 (emails can require several stamps, depending on length).
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. A 14-day digital music subscription costs $14.99, including a $9 “infrastructure charge.”
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.
A 30-day subscription to “unlimited podcasts” costs $9.99.
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. Reading e-books, sending messages, or accessing music, movies, or games costs $0.05 per minute.
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. Sending more than 10 electronic messages per month costs between $10 and $50, depending on the number of messages one wishes to send.
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. Sending electronic messages costs $0.25 per message.
Connecticut DOC and JPay April 2019 Yes, commissions to the DOC include 10%-35% revenue for replacement technology, purchases of external hardware accessories, and fees for emails, songs/music, news subscriptions, etc; and 50% of printing fees. No, contract does not specify circumstances in which service can be canceled. Yes, user agreement (including privacy and ownership provisions) is specified in contract, but unclear whether terms must be approved by DOC. Jpay will “repair and/or replace any broken or damaged Tablets and Kiosks as directed and authorized by the Department.” Any tablet that is “intentionally damaged or destroyed” must be replaced at cost to the DOC. Unclear who decides if a tablet was intentionally damaged. Audiobooks are available for $0.99-19.99 each. News subscriptions are $4.99 a month. Each email is $0.30.
West Virginia DCR and GTL October 2019 Yes, the WVDCR receives a 5% commission on all gross revenue. Yes. GTL 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, but contract states that GTL “will in no way be responsible, or liable for…the safety, efficacy, or use of the tablets…Tablets are provided ‘as is’ without warranty of any kind.” Reading e-books, sending messages, or accessing music, movies, or games costs $0.05 per minute.

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.
**Note: While news reports state that each person in Vermont prisons is receiving a tablet, Vermont’s contract with GTL (which originally provided for kiosks, with the option for the state to request tablets) is less clear. According to the contract, tablets will be provided to up to 90% of people in each “living unit” in Vermont prisons. (See page 36 of the contract.)

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.

Mack Finkel was a Research Analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact) Wanda Bertram is the Communications Strategist at the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact)

One response:

  1. David Walker says:

    I’m in Wisconsin, and they’ve just allowed us to buy these tablets, and its a huge help. But there’s some problems with it. For one, we don’t know how much the D.O.C.’s overcharging us. From the accounts of prisoners in other states, they’re paying 1/3 of what they’re charging us. For instance, we pay $140 for ours, but the state of Michigan only charges about $52 – and they perform the same. Also, they’ve just allowed us to rent movies on them. The problem with that,though is that they only allow us to ” rent ” them for a brief 48 hour window. And if a movie is, say, 2 hours long, you’re only allowed 3 hours of running time ( time and a half ). And we’re charged $3 a movie! Many of us buy/rent them out of desperation. I don’t know if anything can be done through this network, but maybe there’s a way that this can be investigated by someone out there to get the D.O.C. to adjust those prices. Please let me know if this is something that you can advise/assist us with. Thank you for your time and patience.
    David Walker #218708 –
    New Lisbon Correctional Institution –
    New Lisbon, Wisconsin 53950



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