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Pennsylvania plans experimental program to allow inmates computer tablets

| Saturday, March 1, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

A pilot program in Pennsylvania's prisons could revolutionize how inmates spend their time and interact with the outside world, but the union representing corrections officers fears it could become a tool for illicit activity.

The state's Department of Corrections plans to make customized computer tablets available for inmates at two prisons in Schuylkill County by late spring, giving them access to email, music, their commissary account and potentially other services, DOC spokeswoman Susan Bensinger said.

If the test goes well, inmates in prisons across the state could be using tablets by the end of the year.

“We feel it's very attractive to be using that type of technology inside the jail,” Bensinger said. “As 90 percent of the inmates will be returning to the community, isolating them from technology is not in line with the efforts to reduce recidivism. Many challenges are faced when they return, and using technology is one of the problems.”

Inmates are supposed to be punished while in prison, not rewarded with electronic devices, said State Rep. Darryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry.

“There are a lot of folks out there who can't afford a laptop or a computer or a tablet and here you are going to give access to prisoners in their cells? It's an outrageous proposal and one that the administration should slap down very quickly,” Metcalfe said.

Gov. Tom Corbett's office did not return calls for comment.

The tablets won't have wireless Internet capability that comes standard on similar devices bought at retail stores. Instead, inmates would plug in at a central kiosk to get limited Internet access.

Email and any attachments can be monitored by the Department of Corrections or the prison, Bensinger said.

Jason Bloom, vice president of the Pennsylvania Corrections Officers Association, said the union has “real security concerns” about the devices.

“While the department claims they won't be Wi-Fi capable, we all know inmates can overcome security protocols,” Bloom said. “The potential risks don't justify the taxpayer expense.”

The tablets would cost taxpayers nothing, Bensinger said. They would be paid for by inmates or their families. Each inmate would have the opportunity to purchase a tablet, except those in restricted housing units for disciplinary or other reasons.

The goal is to increase security by reducing the number of radios that inmates possess, which are large, have many parts and can be used to conceal contraband, Bensinger said. Prison officials won't remove radios from inmates who already have them, but they may be phased out.

“As with everything we do, security is our No. 1 concern,” Bensinger said.

Mark Capozza, superintendent of the state prison in Woods Run, said his security concerns are low. Most inmates already have televisions, he said.

“It's not a device that's anything more of a concern than inmates already have access to,” Capozza said.

Prison officials are waiting for the prototype before they sign a contract, Bensinger said. At least two companies submitted proposals, she said.

Seven states — Louisiana, Virginia, Michigan, Washington, North Dakota, Georgia and Ohio — allow inmates or their family members to buy tablets for use inside the prison walls. Those tablets, through e-commerce company JPay, cost $49.99. The downloadable content costs between 80 cents and $1.50.

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reachedat 412-391-0927 orabrandolph@tribweb.com.

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