Tablets offer those incarcerated at county jail connection to outside, but not without issues

Tablet users can access a number of features for free, such as the jail’s growing library of eBooks, a law library and some health and educational programming. Text messaging, photo and video sharing and video calls all cost money, as does accessing movies, news and games.

  • By Kiley Koscinski/WESA

(Pittsburgh) — Free electronic tablets have been distributed to those incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail as a way to connect them to the outside world through video calls, movies, eBooks and messaging. But there have been complaints about reliable connection and costs associated with accessing many of the tablet’s features.

The Allegheny County Jail purchased 2,200 GTL tablets in October. Incarcerated people can use them daily between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m. There are currently enough tablets for all incarcerated people at the jail; the population at ACJ as of Dec. 14 was 1,706. Officials say the devices cost $350 per unit.

Tablet users can access a number of features for free, such as the jail’s growing library of eBooks, a law library and some health and educational programming. Text messaging, photo and video sharing and video calls all cost money, as does accessing movies, news and games.

Initially, it was up to the loved ones of an incarcerated individual to put up the cost. They can deposit funds through an account on GTL’s website.

The Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board approved a motion at its November meeting to place $50.00 each on every incarcerated person’s commissary account and tablet account. The money came from the Prisoner Welfare Fund and applied to all those incarcerated at the time of deposit.

A spokesperson for Allegheny County said the funds were added to commissary accounts on Dec. 11 and tablet accounts on Dec. 15. It’s not clear if those incarcerated in the time since that deposit will receive similar credit.

In-person visitation has been restricted since the spring in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 through the facility, according to jail officials. Earlier this month, officials expanded its free, daily phone calls from five minutes to 10. This is separate from the tablet program.

The price of various activities available through the tablet can add up. For example, video calls — which is the closest thing incarcerated individuals have to in-person visits — cost $0.25 per minute. That amounts to a $7.50 charge for a 30-minute video call.

News websites, movies, games and sports applications cost between $0.03 and $0.05 per minute.

Jaclyn Kurin, a staff attorney with the Abolitionist Law Center, said the price for features most valuable to those incarcerated can be a barrier. She noted that many spend months in jail awaiting trial because they’re unable to afford bond.

“For many who are already being incarcerated because of a failure to pay, they just don’t have those means available, they can’t make those calls,” she said. And during a time when video calls are the closest thing those incarcerated have to in-person visits, going without could have detrimental mental health effects.

(Kurin and other civil rights lawyers sued the Allegheny County Jail in September for alleged mistreatment of inmates with psychiatric disabilities; the case is ongoing.)

Advocates have also raised concerns about privacy issues surrounding the use of video calls by inmates.

The county announced new charges for a man incarcerated stemming from a tablet video visit last week. Justin Henderson, 27, was allegedly video calling Natika Maddox, 23, with a tablet when officials observed Maddox performing sex acts. The county said these acts were allegedly committed in the presence of Maddox’s 22-month-old child.

Detectives charged Henderson and Maddox with the sexual abuse of a child, according to the statement. The Allegheny County Bureau of Corrections’ tablet policy states, “Inmates or family members that expose any portion of their body below the neck can be terminated from the video visitation program.”

Bianca Tylek, executive director of New York-based non-profit criminal justice advocacy group Worth Rises, would not comment on that particular case, but she said surveillance of personal video calls is an invasion of the privacy of those who haven’t been convicted of a crime.

“Surveillance is only happening to those who can’t afford bail,” Tylek said. “You want to talk freely … and you can’t really have transparent conversations if they’re going to be consistently used against you.”

Tylek also said many facilities have not been transparent about how user data is collected and stored.

The task of connecting tablets hasn’t been easy, either. Orlando Harper, Allegheny County Jail warden, said officials have heard complaints from those incarcerated about video call connections and download speeds.

“Even in our homes you have issues with internet sometimes. You have to realize that the jail is a fortress,” Warden Harper said. Equipment to connect the tablets to an intranet was installed in October before the tablets were distributed.

The Allegheny County Jail isn’t alone in facing such a challenge.

“We’ve heard these complaints all over the country,” Tylek said, adding that some departments of corrections have discontinued expanding tablet programs after learning about the equipment installation necessary to make the technology fully functional.

The Allegheny County Jail is currently investigating service issues with plans to improve the facility’s connectivity. According to Warden Harper, an analysis should be completed by early January with solutions to follow.

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