The corrections system is not known for innovation, but the use of tablets could be a game changer
The use of tablets in the Massachusetts Department of Corrections (DOC) could be a big opportunity, or it could be another tool to grow profits for the prison industrial complex. This is something advocates need to keep an eye on. According to Holly Rossi, a Program Coordinator for the DOC who says:
The DOC is still in the process of distributing the tablets and reviewing their procedures. They are not currently adding additional content to the tablet; however, that is the goal. The DOC plans to work with internal divisions, institutions, and external stakeholders.
Currently, all of the preloaded content is educational, self-enrichment programming, and vendor programming in addition to the National Corrections Library, Ted Talks, etc. Depending on the housing units, the inmates may have the tablets on their person, and there is no charge for use. Inmates do not have access to the regular internet, but instead are on a secured network.
There is no shortage of information available about concerns around these programs, or articles with titles like, “How Corporations Turned Prison Tablets Into a Predatory Scheme.” Critics Mack Finkel and Wanda Bertram conclude there is nothing inherently wrong with tablet technology, in or out of a prison setting, and write that while they can imagine using tablet tech to improve prison life, lawmakers and members of the public must learn to distinguish truly innovative policies from high-tech cost-cutting ploys before attempting to write better contracts.
Criticisms of the programs can be summarized as follows:
Is this another way to exploit a captive audience like the high rates inmates pay for phone calls?
Is it a way to reduce other services such as eliminating the law library, physical book, or postal mail?
Is it a way to further limit access to family, e.g. only Zoom calls and no in-person visits or programs taught by outside volunteers?
But of course the use of tablets can also be a great technology platform to build upon. Here’s why …
The pandemic forced many organizations and institutions to re-envision the use of technology to provide effective services. This creates an opportunity within corrections generally and the reentry field specifically. Some prisons have taken small steps to utilize technology. Inmates at one facility, for example, shared that tablets were distributed to prisoners to watch movies for a fee.
The available technology could also be leveraged to offer services more conducive to helping with reentry. It could improve access to services and target information-sharing for inmates to individually tailor services, while tablets done the right way could be useful to corrections staff for coordination and information-sharing. One reentry worker shared that a monthly meeting about reentry updates was based on a phone call, so no easily accessible record was available for those absent. Further, those calls ended when the staff person who organized them left the position. New software for virtual meetings makes recordings easy, so that kind of info could be available to all relevant staff.
Increased use of technology offers many potential benefits, but it does require some caution and intentional deliberation about appropriate usage. Considerations about confidentiality and protection of private information, equitable access to resources, and safety arise. Some safeguards and monitoring may be necessary to ensure that technology is used fairly, effectively, and appropriately to prepare prisoners for successful reentry upon release.
Here are some other ideas for prudent implementation:
Increase the use of self-service resources
More resources can be available online, on a self-service basis, for the inmate during incarceration and upon reentry to the community. Reduced reliance on human intervention from a third party, when feasible, would serve to decrease costs and improve access. Online self-service options may also promote greater agency among inmates. A program to help inmates identify their primary challenges at reentry and learn about available resources to address their specific needs would enable them to collaboratively devise their own reentry plan with input from staff. Access to various educational and life development programs would also be helpful.
Provide electronic access to resources for families of inmates
Resources could provide education about the reentry process and typical challenges of inmates. Such information would help prepare and equip family members about what to expect and how they can provide support. In addition, an online site could provide resources for the family members themselves, as they also have been affected by the incarceration of a loved one.
Explore virtual options for mental health services
A high proportion of inmates struggle with mental health and substance abuse issues. Some experience additional trauma or struggles during incarceration. The capacity of state providers in prisons and jails to address mental health and substance abuse issues is limited. Reliance on internal resources also means that treatment is disrupted upon release. The pandemic has forced healthcare providers to greatly expand online resources to address mental health issues. Some of the resources may be appropriately adapted for use in incarceration and during reentry.
Consider remote options for workforce development and education
The pandemic also forced reconsideration of work and increased remote employment and training opportunities. Some job training programs currently exist within prison, but they may not be appropriate for the current workforce environment in terms of orientation toward the workplace skills in demand, CORI friendliness, remote work possibilities, or positions with a living wage.
One prison in Mass recently initiated a training program in computer coding. Online training options in that area or others like software testing, paralegal services, or graphic design could begin in prison and ultimately lead to meaningful and remote work opportunities when released. Some of those positions could potentially begin while still incarcerated, further easing one of the biggest challenges of reentry for many returning citizens. For others, educational programming could allow for the achievement of high school or college degrees, language proficiency, or development of other skills.
Enable opportunities for virtual visits with family members, mentors, or spiritual advisors
The pandemic severely restricted visitation in prisons. Other factors, such as transportation challenges or geographic distance, may also disrupt or hinder visitation. Research has shown, however, that visitation can improve the likelihood of success in reentry so enabling virtual visits may be beneficial (Bales & Mears, 2008).
The corrections system is not known for innovation, but the use of tablets could be a game changer if advocates stay engaged to see they are used to the highest and best use for inmates and to increase the success of returning citizens.