by Efren Paredes, Jr.
In a positive step in the right direction the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) has made it possible for Michigan prisoners to begin purchasing 4.3-inch screen mini-tablets.
The move makes it possible for prisoners to send and receive electronic messages to members of the public through the tablet, as well as purchase music to listen to, and store photos sent to them by people electronically.
The device, which is available in hundreds of prisons across the nation, does not allow access to the Internet. All features available on the tablet are pre-approved by MDOC administrators to meet all security requirements.
Women prisoners were allowed to purchase the tablets as part of a pilot project launched a couple years ago. Its success lead MDOC administrators to allow male prisoners to begin purchasing them early this year.
The tablets also feature a calculator, clock, alarm, and calendar. They are features that though very simple are important to many prisoners' day-to-day lives. The wristwatch currently allowed to be purchased by the MDOC alone is more expensive than the tablet.
Regularly priced at $39.99 the tablet is a wise investment. Michigan prisoners are fortunate to purchase the tablet for $19.99 for a two-month limited period of time.
Previous to allowing prisoners to purchase the tablets prisoners had to send and receive electronic messages using a kiosk manufactured by JPay. Access to the kiosks was limited to two 15-minute sessions per day, however, to accommodate usage by all the prisoners in each housing unit. The ratio of kiosks averages about two per every 140 prisoners.
This presented several challenges for many prisoners who can not type fast or hardly type at all. In many instances it would take prisoners a couple days to type a complete letter to send someone. The frustration often discouraged many prisoners from even sending messages.
Now prisoners can type messages on their personal tablets in their cells and spend as much time as they need to do so. Once complete, they can connect to the JPay kiosk and quickly send their message through the portal.
All electronic messages and photos sent to prisoners via JPay are screened by the company and MDOC staff prior to delivery. This can result in messages being delayed for hours or not being delivered until the following day.
To contact a Michigan prisoner electronically members of the public can visit www.JPay.com and locate the prisoner by her/his prison number. For instance, someone can contact me by searching for me using the number "203116" for a Michigan prisoner.
With the overwhelming positive response to the tablet it is the hope of many prisoners that the MDOC will one day allow prisoners to purchase tablets with larger screens.
A larger screen would allow them to purchase and read e-books, and make it easier for elderly and visually impaired prisoners to read and compose electronic messages.
The purchase of dictionary, thesaurus, and foreign language apps could also be helpful. So could trivia and educational games that teach science, math, and other disciplines.
Apps that could also prove very helpful are ones that allow prisoners to take correspondence courses which help them learn important social and life skills that help them prepare for their transition back to society.
Tablets can be transformed into instruments that foster literacy, increase communication between prisoners and members of the public, and aid rehabilitation which improves public safety. They will also reduce idleness. The more features that are available the more time prisoners will spend using it.
As society advances in the digital age it is important that prisoners not be left behind. Prisoners will one one day return to society and it is essential that they understand the fundamentals of communicating electronically.
Many Michigan prisoners who recently purchased tablets were incarcerated when the Internet, smart phones, and tablets were introduced to the world. They are now having to leap through decades of technological advances to acquire new information about things they have never used before.
Hopefully the future will not include another multi-generational technological drought for Michigan prisoners. It is counterproductive to keep future returning citizens digitally illiterate.
MDOC Director Heidi Washington deserves credit for helping lead Michigan prisoners out of the dark age of technology. Hopefully she will receive the abiding support she needs to advance her vision and stewardship.