Editorial: Effort, oversight will determine success of inmate tablet program

  • The Lake County jail will provide inmates with free tablet computers to make telephone calls, buy books and movies and learn about job and mental-health services.

    The Lake County jail will provide inmates with free tablet computers to make telephone calls, buy books and movies and learn about job and mental-health services. Courtesy of the Lake County Sheriff's Office

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Soon, some 600 Lake County jail inmates will receive free tablet computers to use for entertainment, job searches and to find health information. It's a first-of-its-kind idea for the suburbs that carries a mix of risk and reward.

Ultimately, whether this is a useful innovation or adds to the troubles many inmates face will depend on the effort and oversight jail officials put into the program. Keeping a watchful eye on prices charged by vendors, monitoring usage costs incurred by inmates and teaching inmates how to use the equipment to better their lives could go a long way to make these tools a success.

The tablets will come to Lake County jail early next year at no charge to inmates and at no cost to taxpayers, thanks to a two-year deal with Texas-based Securus Technologies. Securus expects to make enough money on the services inmates buy to give away the devices and share revenue with the county.

The devices will allow inmates to make phone calls and video visits, search for jobs, research the law and view educational and mental health materials. They also offer free music, games, movies and books and the ability to buy "premium" content. Among perks for inmates are lower costs for phone calls and elimination of some fees.

The Lake County sheriff's office, which oversees the jail, says there are safeguards. The tablets cannot access the internet and don't have social media, camera or video capabilities. It's a closed-end, intranet-based system that allows only sheriff-approved content. The tablets are available only during the day.

All this sounds encouraging, but critics such as the Prison Policy Initiative point to the potential problems such deals can have, including inmates who rack up huge charges or pay far above market prices for e-books, movies, music and other content.

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"We hope the focus (of tablet contracts) is on keeping the cost of calls low and helping people keep in touch with loved ones, which is critically important for people in jail," PPI spokeswoman Wanda Bertram told our Chuck Keeshan and Susan Sarkauskas.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth observed that the Federal Communications Commission regulates only rates charged for interstate phone calls and has no say on rates for other telecommunications services.

That means it's up to the sheriff's office to make sure inmates aren't overcharged and don't amass charges they can't afford.

But the responsibility shouldn't end there. Authorities also must ensure inmates aren't isolated by using too much tablet time. Workshops on how to use tablets to search for jobs and education resources would benefit inmates lacking basic computer skills.

Providing free tablets for inmates is an innovative idea. Now, jail officials must ensure it's a useful and positive one.

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