Politics & Government

Giving inmates tablets will help with staffing, safety issues, SC prisons director says

Cell phone use in prisons has been cited as a problem in South Carolina.
Cell phone use in prisons has been cited as a problem in South Carolina. tdominick@thestate.com

As South Carolina’s prisons try to cope with an employee shortage, Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling thinks he has a solution that could help.

Through a new program that would provide modified tablets to inmates in the Palmetto State’s prisons, Stirling said his agency will be able to improve prisoners’ educational offerings and safety, and, maybe, even cut down on illegal cellphone use.

The program — slated for a 90-day test run at three yet-to-be-chosen correctional institutions — will provide tablets preloaded with Corrections Department-approved apps, such as a Bible app, access to online classes or preparation materials for high-school-equivalency degrees, and music, Stirling said. Eventually, the tablets, which also allow phone calls and emails, will have other entertainment content available, he added.

In recent years, South Carolina’s Department of Corrections has struggled to hire enough correctional officers and teachers to staff classrooms, in part due to low pay. Stirling said the tablet program will “use technology to deliver services to these folks in their cells.”

Gary Mohr, the former director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation Corrections, said the number of high school equivalency degrees awarded after the department received tablets doubled because inmates had “access to programming that changes lives.”

“We want to return people to the community better than when they came to us,” Mohr said. “These tablets offer the opportunity to do that.”

Though some have expressed concerns about inmates using the tablets to access the internet and perform illegal activities — like a scheme run by prisoners looking to scam U.S. servicemen — Stirling said the tablets are designed to only access preapproved content.

According to Global Tel Link — the company that runs the tablet program for prisons — the tablets use a “highly-secure customized Android operating system that has been modified to permanently remove features that could present potential security risks.”

If a tablet is hacked or altered by an inmate, Global Tel Link will face a steep fine — up to $400,000 per occurrence with a cap of $2 million.

“We’ve got to be vigilant,” Stirling said. “That’s what we do.”

Mohr said that during his time implementing the tablet program in Ohio, only a handful of the more than 22,000 tablets used by the prison system were altered.

Chris Ditto, the senior vice president for Research and Development at Global Tel Link, said it’s impossible for inmates to hack the devices to access the internet. The tablets only are capable of connecting to a network run by Global Tel Link, he added.

The new program also gives inmates privacy while talking to their families on the phone, Stirling said. Currently, phones available to inmates are located in each prison dorm’s common area.

Inmates will be able to take the tablets into their individual cells to make phone calls or respond to emails.

“I hope it will foster relationships with family members,” Stirling said.

While they can reach out to family members, inmates will have no way of communicating with each other using the tablets, Ditto said.

Though the inmates will have privacy while making calls or responding to emails, their communications still will be monitored by Corrections Department officials, Stirling said. Officials already listen to phone calls made on common area phones, so the tablet program is not expected to add any extra work for guards at chronically understaffed prisons, he added.

Inmates using the tablets still will be required to pay per minute for the calls, like they now do on common-areas phones, Stirling said. However, calls that did cost 10 cents a minute, now will cost 5.5 cents.

One of the reasons that some inmates buy illegal cellphones is because of the significant cost to use the phones provided by Corrections Department, several inmates have told The State.

Those inmates asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation against them or their families.

The Corrections Department currently is unsure how it will give inmates access to tablets, Stirling said. One plan currently under consideration has the tablets available for check out.

In the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, inmates can buy Global Tel Link’s tablets through the commissary for $147 plus tax, according to that department’s website.

Global Tel Link will provide the tablets to the Corrections Department for free, Stirling said. The company will recoup the price of the technology through profits on inmates’ calls.

Eventually, the program will be available at all institutions, including medium- and maximum-security facilities, Stirling said. Now, the department is evaluating the infrastructure at its facilities to decide what changes need to be made to get the program up and running, such as adding Wi-Fi.

Mohr said in Ohio, Global Tel Link helped foot the bill for the changes in infrastructure.

On top of greater educational opportunities, Stirling thinks the program will create a safer environment inside S.C. prisons, which, last year, saw the nation’s deadliest riot in 25 years.

The tablets will give inmates a reason to spend more time in their individual rooms as opposed to congregating in a common area, Stirling said. That will create a safer environment for officers and inmates alike, he thinks.

“Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, as they say,” Stirling said. “We just need to keep them busy.”

In other states that are using the tablets, assaults on staff members went down about 50 percent, Stirling said. Mohr said he noticed this personally in Ohio’s correctional system.

From July 2017 to June 2018, 46 staff members in South Carolina seriously were injured by an inmate, according to a report by the Department of Corrections. That number has been rising steadily since 2014.

The tablet system also helped decrease tension between inmates in Ohio, Mohr said. In maximum security facilities, gang members prevented other inmates from using phones in the common area. When the tablet program was implemented, fighting over phone access decreased significantly, he said.

Stirling also said the program could put a small dent in illegal cellphone use, which he blamed for the rioting at Lee Correctional. Inmates who use the phones to contact their families in private may no longer have an incentive to have a phone.

The program likely will not do much to hinder inmates who use phones for crimes, Stirling said.

“Can I say it’s going to cut it down 100 percent? No,” he said.

South Carolina governor Henry McMaster and SCDC director Bryan Stirling are fighting to prevent prisoners from obtaining contraband cell phones and to block cell reception over prisons.

Emily Bohatch helps cover South Carolina’s government for The State. She also updates The State’s databases. Her accomplishments include winning a Green Eyeshade award in Disaster Reporting in 2018 for her teamwork reporting on Hurricane Irma. She has a degree in Journalism with a minor in Spanish from Ohio University’s E. W. Scripps School of Journalism.
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