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They Bought Tablets in Prison—and Found a Broken Promise - Best News

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They Bought Tablets in Prison—and Found a Broken Promise

“Has anyone heard from medium today?” Nicole writes in a Facebook group dedicated to the wives of men locked up in federal prison, where “medium” is shorthand for medium security detention.

“Nothing today or yesterday,” someone comments beneath her post.

A thread of comments follows:

“No, nothing today.”

“No, not yet.”

“It’s 3:15 pm EST … has anyone at all heard from their [loved one] yet, regardless of unit?!”

“No.”

“Nope … nothing.”

This exchange of messages offers a glimpse into the desperate dig for information that loved ones of federally incarcerated people go through on a daily basis when the prisons where their loved ones live go into lockdown.

As technological advances continue to offer citizens easier connections to one another, we often overlook a neglected population: the incarcerated. We sometimes think of prisons as being stuck in time, resistant to change and modernization. But the rollout of electronic tablets to prisons offered a glimmer of hope for incarcerated folk to stay connected with their loved ones and communities even in the face of more frequent lockdowns. The reality of how those tablets work, however, is tormenting people behind bars.

Blurred Lines

The tablets typically found in prisons are sort of like iPads, if iPads had never developed past the first prototype. The devices are heavily secured by the prisons’ administrations; they don’t connect to the internet but instead offer, for a fee, certain censored content like PG-13 movies and non-explicit music. Electronic tablets have also been sold as a solution to the most common communication woes; since they usually also have messaging and chat apps on them, the tablets seemingly offer a way for incarcerated people to connect with loved ones on the outside even when the prison pay phones are rendered out of reach during prison lockdowns.

Since 2022, federally incarcerated folks have been able to purchase these electronic tablets. However, in our reporting, by speaking with over a hundred people incarcerated in federal institutions across the country and their loved ones, and by reaching out to the Federal Bureau of Prisons and contacting 27 federal facilities nationwide, WIRED has found that federal prisons have disabled the messaging features in these tablets. Prison administrators are blocking access to communication tools, leaving incarcerated individuals isolated and unable to reassure their loved ones on the outside of their safety when their prisons go into lockdown.

In a lockdown, all of the incarcerated individuals—either everyone in a specific unit of a prison or everyone in an entire prison—are restricted to their cells for 22 to 24 hours per day. In this sense, lockdowns are a form of solitary confinement. Lockdowns also result in a major reduction in access to basic activities such as educational resources, religious activities, and exercise. Even showers become irregular or are cut entirely.

Historically, lockdowns were authorized during particularly dangerous events such as prisoner escapes, killings of prison staff, or violent prison riots, and they typically lasted only a few days. But much has changed in recent years as lockdowns have become a crutch for institutional issues such as short staffing.

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WIRED heard from several federally incarcerated people that lockdowns in federal prisons have become far more frequent in recent years. The District of Columbia Corrections Information Council (CIC) found that the Federal Bureau of Prisons, an agency within the US Department of Justice, had been relying on lockdowns at its facilities to deal with everything from staff shortages to small fights between incarcerated people. Dana Bowman, whose husband has served 24 years in federal prison, told WIRED, “My husband’s prison goes on lockdown at least every other day, if not every day, for something.”

In 2019, the CIC visited several federal penitentiaries and found in numerous instances that frequent lockdowns were a primary concern. At Pollock FCI prison in Louisiana, for example, 16 lockdowns were reported over a 12-month period.

Frequent and seemingly unreasonable lockdowns are frustrating enough, but in federal prisons they also leave incarcerated people with zero options to communicate with their loved ones during these periods of intensified isolation. This is because the few communal pay phones available in the prisons are installed in the common areas, just beyond the bars of the cells.

Federal prisons can be locked down so quickly and unexpectedly that they leave incarcerated people no time to contact loved ones and warn them they’ll be incommunicado for days, sometimes weeks. “It leaves all of us on pins and needles not knowing if our loved ones are OK or not,” Bowman says.

Electronic tablets became a lifeline for incarcerated people in state prisons during the pandemic, when most institutions across the US were locked down for several months to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Most of those facilities also blocked in-person visitation, compounding the feelings of isolation felt by incarcerated people. In April of 2020, prison telecom giant Securus announced it would provide free messaging on its tablets to allow incarcerated users to stay in contact with loved ones during the Covid crisis.

Since then, most state prisons across the US have either started selling electronic tablets out of their commissaries or providing the hardware for free. Following 2017, numerous state departments of corrections have signed contracts with prison telecom giants GTL and Securus to have free tablets issued to thousands of incarcerated individuals in their facilities.

Prison tablets have thick, bulky, transparent shells reminiscent of Game Boy Color consoles from 1998. The clear designs are meant to prevent the tablets from being used to store contraband or weapons. The devices are preloaded with prison-approved content such as applications to purchase or rent, strictly edited music and PG-13 films, educational and rehabilitation programs, and software to send messages or make calls.

Prison officials were moved in part to offer incarcerated people electronic tablets for communication purposes because extensive research shows that connection to community back home is one of the primary factors in reducing misbehavior while in prison and reducing recidivism once out.

But if it seems like providing tablets to incarcerated people for free is a purely altruistic move, it’s not. Even those “free” tablets are offered on a fee-per-download basis at an inflated price. This business model draws criticism from prison-rights activists who say the introduction of tablets is simply a new scheme for private corporations to profit off a literal “captive market” and further strengthen the prison-industrial complex.

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States that allow tablets in their institutions also benefit from major kickbacks from those telecom companies in the form of revenue- and profit-sharing and incentives. For example, the Colorado Department of Corrections—which contracts its tablets through GTL and provides them to incarcerated individuals free of charge—receives an annual flat payment of $800,000. Other states like Missouri are allotted a slice (20 percent in Missouri’s case) of the revenue from purchases of entertainment downloads like music, movies, and games.

High fees for content downloads combined with time to kill often result in a hefty bill at the end of the month for the incarcerated folks. And since prison jobs, on average, pay a minimum wage of 86 cents a day for in-prison work, the burden of footing the bill for those downloads often falls to loved ones on the outside.

Even so, for the families of people incarcerated in federal prisons, a tablet can be a real lifeline—albeit an expensive one—and would be well worth the associated costs. Bowman told us, “It would mean everything if they could communicate on the tablets. That way, if we didn’t hear from them by phone we would at least get an email letting us know that they are OK and not to worry.”

That’s why when incarcerated people in federal facilities and their loved ones saw state prisons handing out tablets, they were hopeful the same technology would soon reach them. And it did—with a caveat.

A Bureau of Prisons spokesperson reportedly issued a statement in October 2022 confirming that it was “in the process of introducing the Keefe Score 7c tablet into federal institutions, offering it for sale through the commissaries at a cost of $118.” Initially, the bureau said, the tablets could only be used for music downloads and movie rentals on a pay-per-download model. Keefe, though, said on its website that purchasers will be able to use the tablet to communicate “with loved ones using fee-based text, photo, and video-gram messaging.”

Yet, in our reporting we got in contact with nearly 30 federal prisons and didn’t find a single facility that allowed messaging or phone calls on the Keefe Score 7c tablets. We also spoke with more than a hundred federally incarcerated people and their loved ones and couldn’t find a single incarcerated person able to use the phone call, video chat, or messaging functions on their Keefe SCORE 7c tablets.

Several incarcerated folks told WIRED they wouldn’t have purchased the Keefe SCORE 7c tablet had they known the messaging functions would be disabled. “They don’t do nothing they say on the tablets,” says Fro Jizzle, who was released from a federal facility in January. “I would’ve never bought one if they would’ve said I wouldn’t be able to message and video chat. All we could do was buy music and games and rent movies.”

It's understandable these incarcerated consumers would be confused, especially considering Keefe’s own advertising on its website states that the tablets offer the text, photo, and videogram features. In its marketing pitch to departments of corrections on its website, Keefe writes, “Your facility will benefit from a calmer, better-behaved offender population and a safer corrections environment.”

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WIRED reached out to Keefe for comment on this story several times but didn’t hear back.

If Keefe’s marketing was accurate, the claim about better behavior would be correct. Leah Wang with the Prison Policy Initiative, a leading prison research and advocacy organization, found that communication with the outside world had a clear correlation with good behavior during and after an individual’s prison sentence. “Visitation, mail, phone, and other forms of contact between incarcerated people and their families have positive impacts for everyone—including better health, reduced recidivism, and improvement in school,” Wang reported.

Consistently, prisons that have cut communications with loved ones saw almost immediate negative consequences. Jail facilities in Knox County, Tennessee, for example, banned in-person visitation in 2014 and found it resulted in more violence and higher levels of disciplinary infractions. Yet, despite the extensive research showing the benefits of communication tools, when we reached out to the Bureau of Prisons for this story, a spokesperson told WIRED, “Currently, there are no plans to enable the public messaging options on the Keefe Score 7 tablets.”

Call Waiting

Restrictions on electronic tablets aren’t the only obstacles incarcerated people in federal prisons face when trying to stay in touch with loved ones on the outside. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, unlike state prisons, also enforces a monthly cap on telephone minutes. Bowman tells us her husband, who’s housed at Jesup FCI in Georgia, is allotted 510 minutes a month, meaning he can make approximately one 15-minute phone call a day if he wants to have enough minutes to last the whole month. Bowman said she believes the policy is counterproductive: “Their communication with us is their hope, and without hope a lot of really bad things could happen in those prisons.”

When asked why the agency would enforce these restrictions, a Bureau of Prisons spokesperson said, “Telephone use is subject to limitations, which is necessary to ensure the security or good order, including discipline, of the institution or to protect the public.” But when incarcerated people are released from lockdown, they’re desperate to put their loved ones' minds to rest, and desperation can result in the antithesis of “good order.” Jerrelle Gladden, an incarcerated individual housed at McKean FCI prison in Pennsylvania, explained via email that “few phones shared between hundreds of us, all desperate to reassure our loved ones, adds to frustration and friction in the facilities.”

Technology can be a lifeline, an antidote to loneliness, isolation, and disconnectedness. But when technology is a carrot dangling just beyond your nose, taunting you and your fellow incarcerated people, it can provoke violence and hopelessness. Gladden writes, “We still in the age of AOL. Five desktops and four phones for over 100 inmates, so it's either miss a meal or call a loved one. And they expect us to behave …”

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