Board divided over jail tablet plan

By John Guevara

ROCKFORD — In 2017, it was decided that something must be done to reduce inmate violence. For the state of Colorado, the time to act had arrived.

Both inmates and corrections officers suffer from violence in corrections facilities. And so, the Denver Post reports, 8,000 Colorado inmates are part of a tablet pilot program of GTL Corp. The goal is to provide free tablets to all Colorado prison inmates and ultimately reduce recidivism.

Now, Winnebago County Sheriff Gary Caruana is moving forward on a plan to bring those tablets to the Winnebago County Jail. He emphasizes that the tablets will not cost county taxpayers a dime.

In fact, Caruana says, these tablets will bring $900,000 to the county coffers.

Who would give tablets, including free software, to corrections facilities, and even pay the facilities to take them? GTL, that’s who. GTL describes itself as “the corrections industry’s trusted, one-stop source for integrated technology solutions.”

County board member Fred Wescott questions the move. “Why would we be putting tablets in the hands of prisoners? They’re not supposed to be rewarded for being in jail. And why would we put another potential weapon in their hands, for example, by breaking the glass,I think that’s too much risk.”

Brian Peters, GTL executive director of inmate applications and hardware, was asked if the glass in the tablet was tempered. “Yes. This is a capacitive screen design… It can be considered tempered in that the glass is ‘sandwiched’ between layers of ‘film’—quite similar to a car windshield.”

Pima County Arizona’s sheriff’s department currently provides tablets to its jail inmates. The Rockford Register Star quoted Pima County Captain Sean Stewart, who said, “It’s a humongous management tool. If the inmate knows he can lose it, you are going to garner positive behavior.” In other words, the tablets are too precious an incentive for inmates to use as a weapon.

The tablets are more than a management tool. Winnebago County jail superintendent Bob Redmond says, “We’re talking about a 40 percent reduction on inmate-to-officer violence, a 45 percent reduction on inmate-to-inmate violence, and a 60 percent reduction in suicides in Pima County.” Inmates are not using the tablets as weapons, Redmond says; they are using them as tools.

The reductions in violence against officers is what turned County Board member Eli Nicolosi around on the issue.

“One of the biggest components of this are the correction officer’s safety – the men and women working in the jail who put their lives on the line for us every day,” Nicolosi says.  “I would like to see the correction officers well taken care of and in the loop on this if we move forward.”

Nicolosi continued, “It would be helpful to board members to see reports on inmate incidents in the Sheriff’s monthly reports to us since this technology says it can drastically lower inmate incidents.

“In an ideal world, these reports are given to us by both jail leadership and a few different correction officers that are actually on the floor so we can have the most accurate reports regarding everyone’s safety.”

County board member Burt Gerl agrees. “At first, my feelings were mixed, mostly because of negative comments on social media, and how the jail shouldn’t be a place of comfort for inmates,” Gurl said.

“After speaking with a correctional officer I trust, officers are hopeful that the tablets go through because it means a safer environment for inmates and staff. The additional funds mitigate the additional crunch of Springfield’s decision to pull public safety sales tax dollars away from the county.”

Redmond says the benefits extend beyond reductions in violence or suicide. “It’s an educational tool. Inmates can do coursework without paper or pencil—a more dangerous weapon in many respects—and without having to move to a classroom.”

“The tablet is the great equalizer,” says Peters. “We’re only beginning to understand how much impact it can have, especially on recidivism rates.”

He does caution those who would argue that the tablets can replace human interaction in education or counseling. “We are trying to augment the human element. I think it would be naive of us to think that the tablet without the human, has value.”

But County board member Gary Jury is not ready to make a decision.

“I haven’t seen the contract yet,” Jury said. “We need to make sure that we’re not on the hook for any additional costs, and that the out clause doesn’t include a penalty.”

Wescott says he’s definitely a no vote. “If it works, I’ll praise them. But right now, I can’t support it.” R.

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