Best practices for prison and jail tablet procurement
by Stephen Raher
Last updated: February 7, 2020
The use of computer tablets in prisons and jails is increasing at a rapid pace. While offering this kind of technology to incarcerated people can provide benefits, many tablet programs are run by companies whose business models and practices are troublesome. Sometimes tablets are sold or rented at suspiciously high prices. More frequently, facilities give everyone a “free” tablet, but all or virtually all of the features are “pay to play” (like the infamous West Virginia tablet program where people have to pay to read e-books by the minute).
The power to determine whether a tablet program will be exploitative rests with a correctional agency’s procurement officials, because they negotiate the contract with the tablet vendor. But it is a daunting task: A contract’s most mundane details can lead to financial exploitation for the end user, especially when procurement officials do not fully understand the everyday challenges faced by incarcerated people.
So when correctional agencies consider contracting for a tablet program, procurement officials should consider issues like the ones outlined below:
General Policy Considerations
- Before issuing a request for bids, decide what tablet features you really want. Remember, there’s no such thing as a free lunch: Each additional feature that a vendor adds to the tablets (even ones advertised as “free”) will represent a cost increase for the customer, in the form of higher usage fees somewhere else.
- Do not cut existing services. For instance, if tablets offer e-books, do not cut the library budget. If tablets offer electronic messaging, do not cut the mailroom staffing.
- Do not eliminate critical paper-based systems. Do tablets allow people to electronically file grievances and medical requests? If so, that’s great, but unless all tablets (including replacements for malfunctioning tablets) are free, then an easily-accessible, paper-based version of those systems must remain available for people who can’t afford a tablet.
- Look for sources of public funding. Can user fees be eliminated or reduced by funding tablets through general or special-purpose funds? Is there a welfare or activities fund that can be used? At the very least, has the contracting agency waived any commission that may have been offered by the bidders?
- Plan for a shared network. Do the tablets rely on a local network for WiFi or other connectivity? If so, does a suitable network already exist for purpose of phones or video visitation? Before the tablet vendor spends the funds to install a second network, the facility should explore all feasible ways to use the same network for multiple products. This might entail the tablet vendor compensating the owner of the existing network, but as long as such compensation is less than the cost of a new buildout, it will benefit the facility and end-users by lowering the expense of the tablet system.
- Consider allowing tablet choice. There are many correctional facilities that operate with technology from more than one vendor. Where tablets are purchased directly by the customer (or their friends or family), consider using the network for more than one vendor. In addition to giving customers additional choices, this may encourage better behavior by vendors through increased competition.
Requests for Proposals
- Structure RFP to disfavor bundling. Communications carriers increasingly offer bundled contracts to correctional facilities, combining phone, video, and/or tablets into one contract. This might sound like a good deal, but it isn’t: if one company monopolizes a facility’s technology services, then the facility is essentially captive to that one vendor.
- Avoid unnecessary experience requirements. All too often, RFPs include requirements that artificially reduce the number of companies that can even bid, which gives you fewer choices to consider in the short run and — if these clauses continue to be common — will ensure that no new companies join the market. For example, many RFPs require a vendor to have served a certain number of facilities as large as yours. A better approach would be to set the threshold for bidding as having served a facility half the size of your facility, or just to make the experience threshold into a preference rather than a strict requirement. (Of course, considering your vendor’s experience is a valid part of the bid review process. But what you don’t want to do is prevent a company with an innovative product and a high likelihood of a successful contract from even applying in the first place.)
Regardless of what bidder you select, your final contract should clearly spell out the following:
- Require that data is kept private and secure. Like so many contemporary technologies, tablet systems generate tons of information: phone call data, audio and video recordings, text messages, and usage data. Facilities will probably want to ensure that they can access this data for security purposes, but that’s not the end of the analysis. A vendor should be required to keep data secure from hackers and to not use it for unrelated purposes. In other words, the vendor should be under an affirmative obligation to not sell user information to data brokers or other third parties.
- Require fair account-refund provisions. If a tablet system charges for content, the vendor most likely collects and holds prepayments from customers. Vendors often use “maintenance” or “inactivity” fees to eat away at unused balances in these prepaid accounts. Facilities should make sure that contracts with vendors include a binding fee schedule that does not feature any of these abusive fees, and that any unused balances in inactive accounts are turned over to the state’s unclaimed property program.
- Don’t allow unfair “third party” fees. Vendors sometimes claim a piece of third-party fees, mostly for processing payments (such as Western Union or MoneyGram fees). Evidence suggests that vendors sometimes receive a portion of those fees. Thus, it’s incumbent on facilities to make sure that these fees aren’t being used as a hidden profit center. The contract should specify that the vendor is prohibited from receiving a share of any third-party fees.
- Don’t reduce public kiosks until you understand how tablets impact kiosk demand. Sometimes a prison-based computer system will use both shared “kiosks” and individual tablets (although sometimes the kiosk is nothing more than a tablet that’s affixed to the wall). While tablets are generally preferable to kiosks (for privacy reasons), kiosks are still important as a backup option for people whose tablets are not functioning. Facilities should require that vendors track, analyze, and report on kiosk usage for a substantial period of time after tablets are introduced. The facility can then use this data to make decisions on how many kiosks should remain.
- The vendor should not be able to walk away if revenue projections are not met. Some vendors have drafted contracts that allow them to terminate if they don’t earn enough money. A vendor might exercise this clause because of high levels of equipment breakage, lower-than-anticipated purchases, or numerous other reasons. But this kind of one-sided escape provision means that the vendor may terminate the contract, and thus discontinue tablet services, without warning consumers who have already purchased content and may for various reasons be dependent on the tablets. A fairer, more practical way to protect the vendor from operating at a loss is to have the tablets funded by a mechanism other than service charges, such as general-fund support.
When evaluating bids from various providers, don’t miss these important questions and steps:
- Ask about the hardware. Are the tablets iPads or Android devices that are simply modified to remove certain features? If so, then the facility should be able (either by itself or in partnership with others) to design and implement its own software to run on the tablets. Facilities could then develop educational content, legal research tools, therapeutic programs, or entertainment to suit the specific needs of their residents. This should be spelled out in the contract with the tablet provider.
- Transferability. What happens if the facilities decides to switch to a tablet provider in the future? Specifically, if users have purchased content (ebooks, music downloads), does the incumbent vendor agree to cooperate in transferring that purchased content to the new vendor’s system? If not, will users receive compensation for the property that they lose as a result of the transfer?
- Let subject-matter experts evaluate any educational or therapeutic apps or programs. Does the tablet system include any kind of educational content or apps that help with mental health? If so, the proposal review should allow for hands-on testing by experienced educators and clinicians, who can determine whether this content is worth its advertised value, and how the facility might leverage the content most effectively.
- If the facility’s law library is electronic, it should work on the tablet. The majority of correctional facilities now provide legal research materials only through electronic databases like Lexis-Nexis. Lexis makes its research products available through Apple and Android apps. If a tablet vendor is using Apple or Android hardware, then offering the facility’s electronic legal research database through the tablet should be a hard-and-fast requirement. While electronic resources shouldn’t completely supplant a traditional law library, allowing tablet-based research offers incarcerated people the flexibility of working on legal issues in a time and place of their choosing.
- How does tech support work? It’s a fact of modern life that computer hardware and software will malfunction at some point. Most of us are accustomed to going to a computer store or calling tech support when this happens. But these aren’t options for people in prisons or jails. Facilities must get specific details on how the vendor will provide support to end users. Will facility staff be expected to troubleshoot malfunctioning tablets? If so, will they receive technical training? If not, will the vendor provide on-site support? If the vendor doesn’t provide on-site support, how can it adequately diagnose and fix a problem? If the user has to ship the malfunctioning tablet to an off-site repair facility, is the vendor required to cover shipping to and from the repair center?
- How does customer service work? A close cousin to the tech support question is what kind of warranty the vendor provides. Sellers of consumer goods are generally required by law to warrant against defective products. Many prison tablet vendors try to get around this requirement by providing warranties that are effectively unenforceable by incarcerated customers. Facilities should prevent this by requiring the terms of a fair and equitable end-user warranty be spelled out in the contract between the facility and the vendor.
- Can families “demo” a tablet before buying one? Customers purchasing (new or replacement) tablets for their loved ones are liable to expect more from the technology than it can provide, particularly if they have seen misleading advertisements from the vendor. Misunderstandings like these can be inconvenient for facilities as well as for customers. Facilities should ask: Can customers access an online demo of tablet content — particularly educational and therapeutic content — before purchasing a tablet? (Vendors frequently make such online demos available to procurement officials, but they don’t make them available to family members considering buying one for an incarcerated loved one.)
I have argued before that correctional agencies need to radically reimagine procurement practices for communications services in prisons and jails. The first step is to incorporate end-user treatment as a material portion of the contract-award process. This process must include pushing vendors to treat customers fairly and working through details, like those described in this article, that can mean the difference between fair treatment and exploitation.
See also: Our best practices guides for writing phone and video calling RFPs.