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County officials launch inmate tablet pilot

Thursday, November 30, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

The Travis County Sheriff’s Office will launch a pilot program in 2018 that will put tablet computers in the hands of inmates at the county correctional complex in Del Valle.

On Tuesday, deputies briefed the Commissioners Court on the progress of the development of the program, which they believe will make the jail safer without costing the county a dime.

“Unfortunately, jail is jail and sometimes it’s hard to get the services that we would like to get to the inmates,” Corrections Bureau Captain Jonathan Ede told the Austin Monitor. “This gives us the opportunity to do that.”

“We found that there are lots of benefits,” he told the court. “One being that it will allow our officers to better manage our inmate population. These tablets are going to provide the inmates with abilities to work on some of the items we would hope for them to better themselves before they go out to the community.”

The tablets will be able to provide a variety of applications to users. Examples include mental health programs, legal research databases, educational materials, workforce training content and even religious podcasts.

One thing they won’t be able to do, however, is provide inmates a portal to the internet.

“They have no access to Facebook, they can’t make unmonitored phone calls, they can’t film anything with the tablets. It’s on a secured system,” Ede said.

The launch of the pilot program is pending the installation of the necessary infrastructure at the correctional complex. It is expected to run up to 90 days, with assessments at each 30-day interval. During the pilot approximately 100 tablets will be assigned to inmates in one unit. If it is successful, the aim is to acquire up to 2,500 tablets, of which around 1,800 would be in general use.

Each Google-based tablet (resembling a Kindle Fire, according to Ede) will be assigned to general population inmates, who will have access to it during normal day-room hours, which run from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., though jail staff will collect them periodically for both charging and inspection.

Funding for the program, including the hardware, would come entirely from Securus Technologies, the county’s contractor for inmate telecommunication services. In return, Securus stands to generate revenue from the phone calls that inmates could one day make from the tablets.

“(Securus will) generate some income from the phone calls, but we are going to generate a lot more benefits” for the inmates, Ede told the Monitor.

Inmates are currently able to access services similar to those that the tablets will provide through a limited number of fixed kiosks. High demand and low supply can lead to tension among inmates. Or as Ede put it: “An idle mind is a devil’s workshop, so if there’s nothing positive to do for individuals, well, sometimes they get in trouble.”

If fully adopted after the pilot program, the tablets will not replace the kiosks. Nor will they replace the video visitation and other phone services provided by Securus. And while the phone call option will not be part of the program’s initial phase, Ede said existing jail phone call protocols will apply: Charges will be two cents per minute and under certain circumstances they will be monitored.

On Tuesday, Ede and his colleagues informed the Commissioners Court that a third-party cybersecurity firm contracted by Securus had been unable to locate vulnerabilities with a network identical to that which will be installed at Del Valle.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty told the deputies that he was at first skeptical of the program but warmed to it after learning the details. He also praised the lack of any cost to taxpayers as well as the fact that the devices could lighten the load on corrections officers.

“I mean, I hate to put it this way, but I think that these tablets can be great pacifiers. And whatever makes y’all’s job easier and safer is certainly something that I’m always in favor of,” he said.

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