Updated at 6 p.m., Feb. 4 with more information about the program
St. Louis County is expecting to provide tablets to approximately 900 inmates in its jail, but it won’t need to purchase them.
An undisclosed private company will pay for the tablets — and at least one staff member to maintain them — in exchange for charging inmates for the services offered on the devices, said Doug Moore, spokesman for County Executive Sam Page. Those services are likely to include email-like communication, photo exchanges, video chatting, law library access and educational classes.
They will replace the county’s former contract for inmate phone services, which has expired. The new contract is being offered for five years, with a one-year extension, Moore said. It is not expected to cost the county any money, but it won’t make money off the services either, he said.
Currently, the jail gets a portion of the money inmates spend on phone services, but the jail won’t get that from the new tablet programs. The county is not going to take a share of the tablet charges in order to keep the rates lower for the inmates, Moore said.
Since the contract hasn’t been finalized yet, the county can’t say what private company has been selected to provide the tablets and run the services. The council is expected to vote on the contract Feb. 11.
Original Story from Jan. 31:
St. Louis County is planning to purchase tablets for its approximately 900 jail inmates over the next two months.
The tablets will not be hooked up to the internet, but will allow inmates to communicate electronically with their families and caseworkers. They could also be used to access the law library, as well as educational resources and self-improvement courses, said Raul Benasco, director of the county’s justice services.
Inmates will be able to alert staff to medical issues and file formal complaints through the devices. They will also be able to check the amount of money they have left in their commissary accounts, Benasco said. For inmates who are expecting to leave jail soon, they will be able to conduct job searches.
Outside of the tablets, Benasco plans to offer video conferencing at the jail through the contractor, which is currently not available in the facility. This will help people whose families and loved ones live far away or find it difficult to get to the jail for in-person visits, he said.
“This will be a big game-changer for us,” Benasco said.
The county council would have to approve the purchase of the tablets. The item is expected to go before the council for a vote as early as next week, said Doug Moore, a spokesman for County Executive Sam Page.
Benasco declined to say how much the tablets and video conferencing machines might cost the jail because the contract hasn’t been finalized. He also could not identify the company that might be providing the services. But if the council approves the contract, he would expect to have the tablets in inmates’ hands within 60 days.
Several jails and prisons around the country use similar tablets. The Missouri Department of Corrections distributed the devices in its facilities in 2018.
“Offenders can send and receive monitored email, can access educational videos and can take online courses through Ashland University,” said Karen Pojmann, a spokeswoman for the agency.
Benasco, who previously worked in Texas and Florida, said he has also made use of tablets in other jails he has run.
“It made such a difference with the families and the inmate population,” he said.
But some criminal justice advocates worry about the tablets. They say that inmates are often charged high rates to use the various services offered through them.
“They just seem to me to be another way for these for-profit companies to make money off the backs of people who are incarcerated and their loved ones, and for departments of correction or jails to make commission on it,” said Amy Breihan, Missouri director of the MacArthur Justice Center, a national organization that advocates for change in criminal justice systems.
Inmates in the Missouri Department of Corrections use the tablets to purchase music and books as well as to send emails, but all of those services are expensive, Breihan said. The tablets are also considered a privilege that can be taken away easily, she said.
St. Louis County intends to offer the tablets to inmates for free. Educational programs and access to the law library will also be free, Benasco said. Other tablet services will be offered at a low cost because the county is committed to keeping costs down for people in jail, he said.
Benasco declined to say what the cost will be to inmates because that is part of the contract that hasn’t been executed yet.
“I think the residents of St. Louis County will be very pleased as well as the families of the incarcerated on the minimal cost that will be involved with some of the features,” Benasco said.
Benasco also said the inmates won’t lose their tablet unless they use it as a weapon. “The only issue would be if they throw it or use it to hurt someone,” he said.
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