Roger Bretz Jr. sat tapping on a tablet inside the Polk County Jail in Des Moines, Iowa, quietly passing the time playing a car racing video game.
Between his shifts in the jail kitchen, Bretz, 55, pays 5 cents a minute to use one of the six tablets available to the 64 inmates living in his cell block. He can read news articles, watch movies, play games, take online classes or — most importantly to Bretz — stay in better touch with his loved ones on the outside.
“Before it was hard to get a hold of them, because you had to call or write, if you could remember their phone numbers and addresses,” said Bretz, who was awaiting trial on an operating while intoxicated charge. Now, he can send a message and get an instant response.
The Polk County Jail began offering the tablets March 9 through a pilot project with Telmate, a company with offices in Fruitland, Idaho; Ontario, Oregon; and San Francisco that provides communication services in more than 300 correctional facilities in North America, including Canyon and Ada counties.
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This is the first time Polk County inmates have received access to the internet, and the jail is believed to be the first correctional facility in the state to offer inmates access to internet-enabled devices.
“It’s kind of the newest buzz in the correction field,” Polk County’s Assistant Jail Administrator Capt. Cory Williams said.
Telmate provides 97 tablets to the jail at no cost. The company owns the devices and collects the cents per minute directly from inmates’ jail commissary accounts.
The tablets have been a popular addition. Polk County inmates have racked up about 30,000 minutes per day since they were introduced.
Some of that time is free, as when an inmate accesses the digital law library or conducts regular jail business. But for other uses, like movies and email, inmates pay between 3 and 5 cents per minute.
Telmate touts the devices as a way for people who are incarcerated to stay connected to their families and friends. It cites studies that say the more inmates stay connected, the less likely they are to reoffend.
Williams echoes the positive role communication with the outside world can have on an inmate. Plus, the tablets also can be used as a reward system.
“Jail is somewhat boring,” Williams said. “We try to provide as much of an educational piece that we can. This is another way we can do that.”
“We have TV and books, but this is just another modern-day tool that we can offer to ensure that behavior is correct.”
Nationally, victims’ rights groups have raised concerns that internet-ready devices could be used by inmates for illegal activities or to further harass or intimidate victims.
Telmate tablets are automatically available to newly booked inmates. As long as they follow the jail’s rules they can continue to access the devices, Williams said.
At the Polk County Jail most of the general population cell blocks are now equipped with a tablet station posted on the wall near a jail officer’s desk. Each station charges six devices. Inmates can check out a tablet by signing in using a pin number and showing a photo identification.
Williams said the tablet system is expected to save jail money on printing costs and staff time. Inmates can now use the tablets to sign up for programs or schedule time to visit a chaplain or get a haircut. The jail will no longer issue printed rule books to inmates or provide some paper notifications.
The free digital law library will also eliminate the jail’s need to purchase a new set of law books each year. That alone should save the county a few thousand dollars, Williams said.
Idaho Statesman reporter John Sowell contributed.