Harris County Sheriff's Office detention officers Kerry Baird, left, and Valerie Jenkins look at paperwork for inmates to sign on their tablets inside the Harris County Jail on Thursday, April 23, 2020, in Houston.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice plans to roll out digital tablets to inmates across the state, including those on death row, who had previously lacked options to communicate with friends and family outside the prison walls. Mushroom Head Bolts
More than 62,000 tablets have already been distributed at 66 prison units across Texas, with all other units set to receive them in 2023, said Amanda Hernandez, a spokeswoman for the department.
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Once the tablets are live, inmates in Texas will be able to make intrastate calls from them for 6 cents per minute, said Jade Trombetta, a spokeswoman for Aventiv, the parent company of vendor Securus Technologies.
Prisons in Texas will receive JP6S Unity tablets that come equipped with educational tools, access to more than 30,000 eBooks and other materials, Trombetta said. Correctional facility tablets must also be designed to include shatterproof glass, security screws and more, Trombetta said.
While efforts to add tablets across the state have ramped up in recent months, they have been years in the making, according to officials with Securus and prison justice advocates.
“Any increase in communication for anyone in a cage is a positive thing,” said Drew Willey, the founder of Restoring Justice, a nonprofit that provides representation to people in the criminal justice system. “I think the problem with it goes back to communications companies that are charging people to use the tablets.”
Aventiv is working to provide tablets to all incarcerated Americans because, it argues, this will make facilities safer for officers, staff and the population while also cutting recidivism and helping loved ones connect with those in prison, Trombetta said.
Hernandez told the Houston Chronicle that Securus, based in Carrollton, is providing the tablets at no cost to the state or to inmates. And they are specifically designed for prison populations, Hernandez said.
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But it’s critical that state officials hold private companies, such as Securus, accountable, Willey said, because such contractors have a history of taking advantage of the system to pad profits.
Willey shared a 2019 analysis from the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit think tank, about a contract Harris County signed with Securus to provide calls and messages at the county jail. The analysis asserts that the county contracted with a private company that bills families $12 million per year for basic communications.
“Because this private company offered the county a share of the proceeds, this company has been able to escape proper oversight of the contract and the county has escaped a proper debate about whether the phone contract is helping or hurting the county’s goals for criminal justice policy,” the report reads.
News publication OklahomaWatch has reported that Securus paid millions of dollars to settle claims that it illegally recorded phone conversations between inmates and attorneys and that the company has faced lawsuits asserting that it charges excessively for calls.
The Prison Policy Initiative analysis does note that the cost per call had declined in recent years in Harris County.
“My main ask is they have systems in place to hold the contract accountable,” Willey said. “I want to make sure Securus isn’t just taking peoples’ money.”
Matt DeGrood is a general assignment and breaking news reporter for the Houston Chronicle.
A graduate of the University of Dallas, he joined the Chronicle in 2022. He has reported for community newspapers across Texas, including the Galveston County Daily News, the Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel and the Fort Bend Star.
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