The Sedgwick County Jail now has hundreds of “community” tablets that inmates can check out twice a day in two- to three-hour increments.

The Wichita Eagle

Inmates at the Sedgwick County Jail have a new way to stay educated, entertained and in touch with their family members.

Thanks to a partnership with prison communications firm Securus Technologies, those incarcerated at the jail now have access to handheld electronic tablets they can use to call friends and loved ones, read books, play games, listen to music, watch movies and take part in re-entry training and on-demand learning programs.

Many of the options are free to inmates including job search tools, thousands of e-books, self-paced educational materials like Khan Academy and law library access, religious information and ceremonies and dozens of podcasts focused on addiction and mental health.

The jail has hundreds of “community” tablets that inmates can check out twice a day in two- to three-hour increments.

But they can also be personalized for a $5 monthly subscription fee that permits access to premium applications, downloadable media and phone-on-tablet calling.

The jail rolled out the tablets in November to all of its housing units.

And so far feedback from inmates has been mostly positive, the jail’s administrator, Col. Jared Schechter, said in a recent interview.

“Most like the idea of having more access to different types of programming” instead of being stuck reading whatever hardcopy books get donated or what’s playing on shared televisions and their AM/FM radios, he said.

Half to 60% of jail staffers have also been receptive, he said, with many viewing tablet privileges as another behavior management and self-help tool.

“We’ve actually been looking at tablet technology … for many years. Previously we weren’t comfortable with them because it was very new technology. We wanted to see how it was tested, how they worked and make sure that the right benefits were there and also to make sure that we’re not just selling stuff to sell stuff or gouging inmates for money.”

He said officials challenged Securus to come up with a tablet platform and system “that gives inmates opportunities who want opportunities.”

“It’s stuff we couldn’t even imagine to offer before. It’s very exciting for us to have.”

Securus’ tablets

Securus Technologies, parent company of JPay, has been rolling tablet technology out to correctional and detention facilities nationwide over the past decade. Its first corrections-grade tablet was introduced in 2011. Built to closely mirror tablets used by the general public, its latest version, the JP6S, has a seven-inch touchscreen, earbud headphones and a clear, impact-resistance outer shell designed to lessen the chance contraband will be hidden in the casing.

The tablet weighs in at just over a pound and boasts an up to 13-hour battery life, 32GB of internal storage, a customized Android operating system, 1280-by-800 screen resolution and built-in secure WiFi on a secure, private network.

“Sedgwick County has realized that technology can make all the difference in the lives of the incarcerated and their families,” Securus Technologies chief growth officer Russell Roberts said in a prepared statement. “The proven benefits of tablet technology continues to motivate us to do everything we can for the incarcerated communities across the country.”

Securus currently works with more than two dozen Kansas jails and detention facilities, including the main Sedgwick County Jail location at 141 W. Elm and its facility annex at 701 W. Harry.

Tablets are deployed in all of them, a Securus Technologies spokeswoman said.

They’re worth around $40. But Securus provides the devices to detention facilities and inmates at no charge.

The company makes money selling media to inmates and through the monthly premium content subscription fee. Sedgwick County does receive a commission from purchases, which gets deposited into the general fund, Schechter said. The Sheriff’s Office doesn’t collect any commissions directly. Commission proceeds pay for maintenance and updates to technology the inmates and jail use including kiosks, law library access and investigative software, he said.

“We’re not trying to make money off the inmates’ families or have the county profit off all of this. But there is a cost to do all these things,” Schechter said.

The tablet technology has been an especially welcome addition as the jail has grappled with COVID-19 outbreaks inside its walls and the community. Safety protocols enacted after the pandemic reached the state in March has kept some people who provide programs and other services to inmates at home.

Over the past several months, scores of inmates have been under quarantine after contracting or being exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, presumably adding to the monotony of an already restricted living situation that long ago eliminated most in-person visits for inmates and doesn’t allow outside recreation or exercise.

“We’re not really built for programming like prisons are and other facilities are” with limited room to hold classes and programs further complicated by a number of inmates required to stay away from co-defendants and others housed in the jail, Schechter said.

“So when the tablets came along — especially their new platform — it really opened up some opportunities for us.”

Concerns raised

But putting the technology in inmates’ hands hasn’t gone without criticism.

Some local inmates contended the Sedgwick County Jail was trying to brainwash them when the tablets rolled out in November, Schechter said.

On a national level, accusations of price gouging have surfaced. In some facilities outside of Kansas, inmates already charged high prices for commissary and phone calls have shelled out several dollars to download a single song, game or public domain book that might otherwise be free. In others, a single movie rental might cost up to $25 and purchasing a complete music album might cost up to $46. Inmates in at least one state were charged by the minute for tablet use.

Criminal activity has also been a problem. In 2018, a group of inmates at an Idaho correctional facility used their tablets to hack into Securus’ system and steal nearly a quarter million dollars worth of credits they could use to buy content.

Asked what the jail is doing to safeguard against unauthorized use, Schechter said the tablets only operate on a secure network Securus installed inside the facilities at no cost to the county. Inmates don’t have Internet access like the general public. Tablet use is monitored by jail staff including the content of messages and phone calls, and inmates have to return their tablets to deputies for charging at bedtime.

“It’s all very transparent so we can see what they’re doing,” he said.

Schechter also said ensuring prices for premium access and content are fair was a priority for jail administration.

In addition to the $5 monthly subscription fee, music costs 65 cents to $2 per song for unlimited play, with most costing $1.49 a piece. Games cost $4 to about $11 each. Movies and TV shows cost 99 cents to $14.99.

Inmates only have to pay for items once during a jail stay, which averaged around 30 days before the pandemic and is a little longer now. But purchases do not carry over to future stays. And inmates don’t get to keep personalized tablets with them when they’re released.

Mostly the local roll out went smoothly. Still, it hasn’t been without problems.

Within the first few weeks, local inmates damaged at least four tablets. One spilled liquid on a device he had borrowed. Another threw his tablet against a cell door several times when a deputy asked for it, Sheriff’s Office spokesman Lt. Benjamin Blick said.

On Nov. 18, one inmate broke a tablet “and was attempting to cut his wrists with the pieces,” and on Dec. 21 another “dismantled a Securus tablet and threatened to harm himself” with the shards but wasn’t successful, Blick said in response to questions about cases that appeared on the Sheriff’s Office’s daily blotter.

Blick said Securus Technologies has decided it won’t press charges over vandalized or accidentally broken tablets.

Instead the jail sends them back to the manufacturer for repairs. Inmates who purposely damage a device may be subject to disciplinary sanctions that might include segregation and losing use privileges, Schechter said.

In its initial roll out, the jail deployed 731 community tablets. Five hundred inmates, about a third of the jail’s daily population, subscribed to the $5 monthly service the first week, Schechter said.

“It’s important that we give people opportunities through technology to improve their lives if they want to improve it.”

Amy Renee Leiker has been reporting for The Wichita Eagle since 2010. She covers crime, courts and breaking news and updates the newspaper’s online databases. You can reach her at 316-268-6644. She’s an avid reader and mom of three in her non-work time.

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