Going digital from behind bars, with an iPad


Arizona Sonora News Service

Beginning in June 2016 nearly all 2,000 Pima County Jail inmates became officially “logged in” after receiving their own tablet devices.

Yes, tablets. As in personal computer tablets. The idea was originally suggested to decrease paper costs, reduce contraband through mail, and lessen repeat offenses.

Although some may be wary of inmates being able to have personal access to modern technology, Corrections Support Captain Sean Stewart says he is confident that the facility’s WiFi will not recognize or accept any IP address—a network that distinguishes one computer from another—other than Pima County’s.

Inmates are restricted from the Internet and social media sites.

“Whatever I or the security staff puts on the server is what they have access to,” Stewart said. “So, for example, today their tablets allow them phone access between 7 a.m. and midnight, along with the headsets that they’re also given.”

One of the most common issues that occurs in Pima County Jail is when inmates state that they have filed a grievance when in fact they did not; ultimately, making it the sheriff’s department word against a prisoner’s. Soon, grievance forms will be available to be filled out on the tablet within the upcoming months. This will allow for  all infringements to be filed, tracked, and easily recovered on the computerized system.

Stewart said that technically everyone in the facility is still innocent and have yet to be proven guilty in court.

The novelty of the initiative has elicited some amusement even behind bars. “If there was a reality show being filmed in here, we’d be the laughing stock of television,” a prisoner said to his friend via a Skype video chat. “Everyone in here has these tablets. It’s nice though.”

The charging station for the tablets used by inmates in the Pima County Jail in Tucson, Ariz. on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016. This allows for approximately 48 tablets to charge simultaneously. Allie Goodman / Arizona Sonora News Service
The charging station for the tablets used by inmates in the Pima County Jail in Tucson, Ariz. on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016. This allows for approximately 48 tablets to charge simultaneously. Allie Goodman / Arizona Sonora News Service

Not only is Pima County Jail unique in that they provide every inmate with a tablet, unlike other jails who have limited devices, but they also provide these devices free of charge. Stewart prides his team on their close work with Global Tel Link, an innovative technologies leader who signed a contract promising the next five years of electronic tablet usage to be free of charge, making their money off of additional games and applications.

“GTL often connects me with other jail commanders who fail to understand that it’s impossible to maintain a successful have-and-have-not situation inside a correctional facility, as this only invites strong-arming assault,” Stewart said. “What we have done will allow [Pima’s] violence rate to go down fifty percent, while other jails, who have 20 tablets for 70 inmates, may go up.”

Situations similar to this can be described as “survival of the richest,” as the only eligible users are those who can pay for the product. This inequality alone is prone to generate problems and foreshadow physical altercations.

“When we sat down with GTL we told them they were not allowed to sell everything on there—that they must have free activities for inmates who can’t afford a five- dollar game,” Stewart said.

GTL employee Michael Stuber is determined to make sure this technological integration runs as smoothly as possible. “We even recalled the original charging cases,” Stuber said. “They were a sterile white color and were made of nondurable plastic, they looked like they belonged in a hospital.”

The updated crates are modern and navy blue, with room for approximately 48 devices to charge simultaneously. There are even small, bright green lights under every tablet holder to indicate when a device is done charging.

Contrarily, other facilities in Idaho and New Jersey are working with a secondary prison contractor, JPay, to adopt the JPmini tablet.

“JPay doesn’t have a phone—it’s more of an entertainment service whereas ours is more of a communication device,” Stewart said. “We were originally going for an electronic system for filing grievances, receiving electronic messages and making phone calls to make sure the FCC’s precise regulations didn’t cause hate discontent intention inside the facility. Then, the afterthought was to put books and programs on the devices.”

These additions are likely to become the future of prison life, as online tutorials and documents such as how to balance a checkbook, anger management tools, the Pima County Jail rulebook and possibly even Pandora music will become available.

“Don’t forget that GTL isn’t the Salvation Army,” Stewart said, jokingly.

And he’s right—GTL is a for-profit company that invested over 2 million dollars into solidifying reliable WiFi throughout the facility, placing numerous Internet servers and supplying over 2,000 tablets.

Neither Pima County nor Tucson taxpayers paid a single penny for this integration—GTL plans to recoup costs by the end of the 5-year contract from game sales and inmate phone calls. The use of tablets also eliminates the cost of writing materials.

Also, phone calls to attorneys and public defender offices are free of charge.

When asked if inmates are truly deserving of these privileges, Capt. Stewart affirms that his chief concern is for his staff. If an inmate chooses to misbehave, an officer now has something valuable to take from him, which will trigger the prisoner to be apologetic and act accordingly, ultimately functioning as a management tool.

“You have people who will serve the rest of their lives in prison,” Stewart said. “This device gives them a meaningful incentive to respect the officers and garners positive behavior amongst the inmate population, knowing it can be taken away at any given time.”

According to Stewart, approximately 60 percent of other officers are fond of the tablet integration, while the remaining 40 percent complain that criminals are being over-indulged.

Stewart acknowledges that although this may be true, they’re still citizens and should be awarded of their constitutional rights, as they remain innocent until proven guilty.

Stewart believes that in one year, 100 percent of officers will be on board.

“Before the tablets, if a man was anticipating making a call to his wife at night when she gets off work and all of a sudden an officer comes in and tells everyone it’s time to go to their rooms, the inmate becomes frustrated and angry,” Stewart said.

“We’re really looking forward to the future of these [tablets],” Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos said. “So far, so good.”

September 26 marked the first day that prisoners are able to message friends and family from their devices. Therefore, when security asks the inmates to return to their cells there will be no argument. Since charging blocks are not available in the cells, inmates must be respectful and compliant to officers if they wish for their tablets to be charged.


Download high resolution images here.

headshotAllie Goodman is senior at the University of Arizona majoring in Journalism. She hopes to graduate with a job in the music or entertainment industry. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *