From Flinstones to Jetsons

04/03/2014
By Donna Rogers, Editor-In-Chief

Offenders—some of whom have been locked away for 20 years or more—are moving out of the stone age and into the digital age, where 91% of American adults own cellphones, 56% have smartphones and 43% have some type of tablet or e-reader, according to the latest Pew Research poll. Some offenders have never used a computer or cell phone previously—they don’t even know how to turn it on, says Meggie McGraw of Union Supply. And they are having some interesting reactions, she notes.

Of course there are detractors, and these come not only from the general public, but from prison staff themselves, who are primarily concerned with the security of conducting outside communications. 

 
Says Devon Schrum, director of security with the Washington Department of Corrections, “At first we had a lot of resistance from staff,” who protested, “‘what email?’, ‘what MP3 players?’”  
 
“The wireless aspect is seen as very taboo,” adds Jeff Hansen, chief marketing officer with Telmate, the third largest and rapidly growing inmate communications provider in the U.S. The thought of introducing wireless to facilities causes trepidation that inmates will be able to connect to the Internet, connect with other inmates and connect with their comrades to conduct illegal activities.
 
Concerted development is occurring now to address those security matters. For example, some devices work on a proprietary OS that may be less familiar with hackers, some connect to an inhouse kiosk to up- and download all content and have their own private network that never connects directly to the Internet. 


 
The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction has allowed use of mini-tablets from JPay Inc. for email messaging since 2010. Spokesman Ricky Seyfang says, “If an offender composes his email with the use of his mini-tablet he MUST connect to the Unit Kiosk in order to send the email.  The mini-tablets do not have access to Internet.” 
 
He says the mini-tablets, which are used in Ohio in addition to email for searching general inquiries such as commissary balances, visiting list and music downloads, actually allows his agency to maintain better security and control over communications because they maintain an electronic copy of all emails sent from, and to, inmates. All electronic communications, just as is done with paper mail, are subject to security screening.  “In fact,” he says, “the electronic means of communication, either through kiosks or the mini-tablets, allow the facility to program in key words to look for that may indicate inappropriate activity or a security risk.“ 
 
Schrum echoes improvement to security. “We were finding in Washington state that inmates with cassette players were removing the motors and making tattoo guns.” The agency, which also uses the JP4 mini-tablet from JPay, has had it in place for just under a year and reports the compact players contain no motorized parts. The state has sold over 6,000 devices to inmates throughout the past year (of 16,000 of its total population), and that doesn’t include those with JPay’s first gen device, an MP3 player. They haven’t eliminated the cassette player or the MP3 but they no longer sell the cassette player, and ideally, she says, it is being eliminated so that they can’t be turned into contraband.
It’s a “very safe mode of communication,” reiterates Ryan Shapiro, CEO, JPay, “because every communication is recorded, filtered (or can be), or monitored live. It’s even safer than a phone call—because it’s searchable by text.” The company is now piloting an instant messaging program with unlimited talk  for a monthly subscription fee (available by our print date). It too will be searchable by text and done in real time.
 
In addition to developing safety mechanisms on the device side,  the network must be secure as well. Telmate reports “we are working on our own version of a VPN,” says Jason Ling, tablet product owner. “It is a hardened, locked-down network we install into the facility.” It is designed with a wireless access point that the vendor installs with their own server. “We 100% control and maintain our server, which then connects to the Internet.” You can think of it as the gatekeeper and the middleman, he furthers. It only connects to the firm’s tablet, it doesn’t connect to an iPad, or any other device. “It only connects to our tablet [via] a handshake.” With regards to the network structure, says Telmate’s CMO Hansen, “we  go even a step further. The tablets are tied to a location in the facility. If...an inmate takes it outside a pod, it would be rendered useless.”
 
Trends in Tablet Types
Another aspect of development for the inmate tablet market is creating the dimension of device that will be most widely accepted. In the general marketplace, trends show tablet sales are in high demand. According to tech research firm IDC’s latest forecast, total annual tablet shipments will for the first time exceed what it calls “portable PCs” (laptops) in 2015. Tablets are also shrinking in size. In 2011 73% of tablet sales were 8-11 inches; by 2013 that number had dropped to 43%. During the past three years, the sub-8-inch category exploded to overtake the larger-sized segment in terms of total shipments—smaller tablets going from 27% in 2011 to 55% in 2013 and projected to be 57% of marketshare in 2017.
 
Tablet computers in the corrections market are likewise poised to deliver a similar experience. 
In late 2013, Union Supply Group announced a new division, Union Supply Media, and the launch of its patent pending tablet solution, U-TAB7, a seven-inch, correction-grade plastic tablet with a proprietary OS based on Android software. “We developed it inhouse and customized it on Android-based apps,” says McGraw, director of media sales. Security is built in because each personal device is assigned to a particular inmate (they purchase it for an unspecified amount and can take it with them when they are released.) The SD card is burned to a particular tablet then it is decrypted, she explains. If inmates swap a card, the tablet will reject it because it is only good for one use. 
 
Everything they purchase is delivered via the SD card, no kiosk is involved, she says. “It’s pretty simple.” Inmates can purchase music, and educational content, movies, TV shows are available on a rental basis. They and their families can also place commissary orders and order from the direct package program. The tablet delivers educational programs, such as a popular keyboarding program, which is ACA-approved content, through the Correctional Education Associa-tion, or CEA. Union’s tablet has the ability for emails and photosharing, though those services haven’t been implemented yet, notes McGraw.
 
A smaller device, the JP4 works in conjunction with the JPay kiosk. Seven state DOCs have permitted usage, including Washington, Ohio (both mentioned above), Louisiana, N.D. and Virginia. Georgia DOC currently is piloting a program at five of its women’s facilities for music only, and immanently going live is at a federal facility in California. 
 
These players plug into JPay kiosks installed in common areas, where an inmate can preview, purchase and download music tracks from a library of more than 10 million titles. Offenders can play games like Tetris or draft an email and send it when connecting to the kiosk. The 4.3-inch mini-tablet, similar in size to Samsung phablets (a cross between the size of a smartphone and tablet), runs on its own OS and has no camera. (The company cautions that using the Android OS from Google, one of the most popular platforms for mobile devices, is also one of the most hackable.) 
 
Through the kiosk, inmates can attach photos and VideoGrams (30-second video clips) to the emails. 
The next rollout will be a commissary ordering system in Indiana where inmates can place an order on the device and upload it into their cart on the kiosk. A major feature will be an instant messaging system, being piloted now, which has a wireless capability. “It’s one of the most exciting things in corrections in a long time,” says Shapiro. He says JPay’s entire security team is surveying the operation for any vulnerabilities. “It’s a very safe mode of communication, because everything is recorded, filtered, or can be, or monitored live (as a phone call can be). It’s even safer than a phone call—because it’s searchable by text. You can’t get away with [as much] in a text.”
 
While movies, TV shows and sports score capabilities are “on the road map,” but not available now, says Shapiro, JPay has just completed a large e-book integration, and its next “major undertaking” is a host of different K-12 applications, with a focus on high school and GED certification. And what may make studying and reading easier is a new 10-inch device, the JP5, which is scheduled to make its debut toward the end of 2014.
 
As for now the JP4 player is a “hot item” and devices in use are ”approaching one hundred thousand,” reports Shapiro. 
Telmate’s tablet, with its seven-inch display, is in the sweet spot in terms of size. We customized it around an Android framework, says Ling, and created “our own secure version with full functionality of a Nexis device or an iPad.” 
 
As noted, the wifi is connected to Telmate’s own server so there is no way of inmates’ getting into cyberspace. They may view a list of web sites over this virtual private network that is vetted (by Telmate and the facilities themselves) for those that are deemed appropriate and safe—like CNN, religious and entertainment sites—all in a locked and controlled experience, says Hansen. “If they send a message to Twitter, Facebook, etc. they get a gigantic ‘access denied.’”
 
The Telmate device, which is targeted at county facilities, for that reason can be shared by offenders and is often used on a fee-per-use basis. Its technology comes in three formats: a fixed format station that is attached to the wall; a shared tablet that can be tethered in a pod’s common space; or an individual purchase model. For use of the shared tablet, Hansen says, the inmate pays a per-minute fee for usage—“the access fee is low but they pay for services.” For example, there is no cost for web browsing, but there is to buy music or videos. It can also be used for video visitation, games and e-books. The next phase will be messaging to family and friends….Telmate already has the infrastructure in place, Hansen adds. 
 
Possibly the most positive feature tablets offer is mobility. “We have Telmate stations for inmates—but they are stuck standing up against a wall. This will give them portable access to take to their bunk and lay down.” They can read a book or, Hansen discloses, they are looking at expanding the tablet into the educational realm—from GED to life skill training to spiritual guidance to diction counseling. “Staff is thrilled because it’s a behavioral modification tool...and [it] ideally lowers recidivism.” 
 
Schrum at the WDOC agrees. “…The beauty is that instead of acting up, causing fights, inmates are spending time drafting emails. It goes a long way to occupying time.” 
While it’s not new, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention Keefe Group’s Access Corrections, an MP3 solution that has been in use since 2009. Access Corrections encompasses a number of technology services including Access to Entertainment, Secure Deposits, and Secure Mail. Mail is processed through a filtering system, which identifies and reports key words and phrases. Once it’s approved by the facility, the email can be sent for download through its MP3 player program or sent to an Edge inmate kiosk for the inmate to retrieve.
 
Reaping Reentry Rewards
It’s really important that we look at change and we can embrace it, says Schrum. “We can connect them back to family….teens who would never write a letter are quick to send e-mail. It’s an oppportunity for offender and family to stay connected, and it’s affordable.”
 
A better comfort level with current day technology could increase inmates’ ability to obtain housing, employment or further their education, furthers Seyfang of the Ohio DRC. And because staff are able to utilize the email system to respond to simple inquiries, it allows them to better focus on inmate needs, the delivery of programming etc. Inmates don’t have to be pulled out of class, a program, or a job in order to meet about a question sent to a staff member in a kite. He concludes: “All of these improvements can have an overall calming effect on an institution.”
 
Those that aren’t acquainted with any wireless devices are most astonished, McGraw says. When they put their finger on the touchscreen for the first time and it reacts to their touch, “It blows their mind. It’s like the Flintstones meeting the Jetsons.” J