For decades, people stuck in jail relied on a pencil and a sheet of paper to write a letter home.
Though that option still exists, inmates at the Canyon County Jail can now check out a tablet and send messages electronically.
This fall, the jail obtained about three dozen of the tablets from Telmate, a San Francisco company that has offices in Fruitland and Ontario. The company, which also operates videoconferencing equipment at the jail that allows visitors to speak to inmates via a screen, provided the tablets at no cost to the Canyon County Sheriff’s Office.
Inmates pay 5 cents per minute to send text messages to family members and friends who set up an account with Telmate. Messages of up to 500 characters at a time can be downloaded by those outside the jail using an Apple or Android phone application or by going to a Telmate website.
Outside correspondents have to pay 25 cents a minute to send messages to those locked up.
Inmates also have access to approved news, sports and weather websites and can peruse a law library, all for the same per-minute charge. They can listen to music or play games on the tablet. There is no capability for sending or receiving video messages, however.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew that they would probably be pretty excited about getting them,” said Lt. Andrew Kiehl, the jail inmate supervisor. “They’re being used, but we don’t have inmates waiting for other inmates to put them up so they can be used.”
All general population inmates living in dormitory-style units have access to the tablets, unless they’ve lost privileges due to disciplinary action. There’s about one tablet for every 10 inmates. The units are kept at docking stations inside an open pod where inmates can walk around and sit at tables.
Nationally, Telmate says it has supplied tablets to 300 jails and prisons across the country. In Idaho, the Ada County Jail uses both handheld tablets and more sturdy units mounted to walls. Jails in Twin Falls and Burley also have tablets for use by inmates.
Officials at the Canyon County Jail were wary when Telmate officials approached them about providing tablets, Kiehl said. They weren’t sure there would be a benefit for the jail.
After consulting with Ada County officials — “They had nothing but praise for the tablets,” Kiehl said — Canyon County decided to allow the devices.
Canyon County officials learned they could monitor inmate use and see what was being sent back and forth on the tablets.
“They showed us on a computer what activity was being seen on the tablets, who was using them and for how long, what the battery life was,” Kiehl said. “They quelled our fears about not having control over them.”
Telmate told jail officials they could also use the tablets to keep tabs on inmates who might admit their involvement in illegal activity.
“We could use anything written about a crime against them in court,” Kiehl said.
So far, inmates have safeguarded the tablets, he said. They don’t want to break or damage them and risk losing the use of them, and Kiehl hopes the tablets will promote good behavior.