This spring, Hancock County Jail in Ellsworth is expected to join a growing list of jails and prisons that provide limited-access electronic tablets to its inmates.
The county’s three commissioners voted unanimously on Tuesday to sign a three-year contract with Securus, which already is the jail’s inmate phone and video call provider, for 25 tablets that will be shared among inmates at the jail, which has 52 beds. The contract will not cost the county any money, but instead will generate funds for the jail’s inmate benefit account, according to jail administrator Timothy Richardson.
The program reflects a nationwide trend of jails and prisons contracting with private firms to provide electronic tablets to inmates — which some inmate advocates have criticized for charging high rates to inmates, many of whom have little to no income, while generating hefty profit margins for the firms and their investors.
According to HuffPost, in 2014 Securus provided phone services to 2,600 prisons and jails in 47 states, and made $114.6 million in profit on that revenue, representing a gross profit margin of 51 percent.
Last year, the Maine Department of Corrections started providing tablets to nearly 200 inmates at state prisons after reaching an agreement with Edovo, a private firm in Chicago, to provide the devices.
Securus is expected to make money off the arrangement at the jail in Ellsworth by charging users fees for certain features the tablets offer. Inmates and their friends and families will have to pay 50 cents for each exchange of email-like messages they send back and forth via the tablets, and inmates will be able to pay $5 per month to get a tablet for their own exclusive use, which would not be among the 25 shared tablets.
Richardson said Friday that inmates also will be able to watch movies and listen to music — all of them screened for appropriate content — and access educational programming with the devices. The tablets will not have direct access to the internet, but instead will be linked to a secure network maintained and monitored by Securus. The tablets likely will be provided to the inmates by sometime in April or May, he said.
By having roughly one tablet for every two inmates at the jail, Richardson said, it will be easier for inmates to keep in touch with their friends and families, which is important for maintaining morale among the jail population. Twenty-nine cents of every dollar generated through inmate user fees will go toward the county’s inmate benefit account, which is restricted to funding services or expenses that directly benefit inmates such as cable television, exercise equipment, reading materials and educational opportunities, he said.
“We’re doing it to provide the best communication for [inmate] friends and families,” Richardson said, adding that the tablets especially will help maintain familial connections for inmates being boarded from other counties. “Another goal is to try to get as paperless as possible.”
The tablets also will help reduce the amount of paper that flows through the jail. Instead of providing a new, printed jail policy handbook to each inmate, Richardson said, the handbook will be available electronically to each inmate through the tablets. Inmates also will be able to submit request forms — for counseling, special visits with families or friends, or other services — via the tablets.
The jail administrator said roughly 1,300 to 1,400 inmates pass through the jail each year. Some are there for only a few days, while others are there for up to a year.
Richardson said he was aware that similar programs at other jails or prisons have been criticized over the manner in which they generate profits for the firms involved but said the deal approved by the county this week will benefit both taxpayers and jail inmates.
“It’s the wave of the future,” Richardson said. “I think it’s a great program.”