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Commentary: Why Is New York Giving Tablets to All State Prisoners?

February 2, 2018, 5:26 PM UTC
Glen Race serves time in prison
ATTICA , NY - MAY 14: Glen Race serves time in prison at the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica , New York In 2007 Glen Race committed a pair of murders in Halifax, he fled to the United States where he committed a third murder. In Canada he was found found not criminally responsible. However in the United States he was given a life sentence without that consideration. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Steve Russell—Toronto Star/Getty Images

The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s announcement that incarcerated people in the state will receive free computer tablets is a welcome policy change, farsighted and sophisticated.

This move will increase the safety and security of prisons and decrease prisoner abuse. It is also an acknowledgement of the indisputable: The road to successful rehabilitation for the incarcerated population begins and ends with education and the maintenance of family ties. And since over 95% of all state prisoners in the U.S. will someday be released, according to a 2002 Bureau of Justice Statistics study, it is time we acknowledge that policy initiatives like this are in the best interests of society at large.

The myth that real rehabilitation consists of locking people up in seclusion with only a Bible and their thoughts was long ago debunked as cruel and counterproductive. Today, at least in New York state, we try to treat prisoners better, though solitary confinement, lack of adequate mental health care, and obstacles to family visitation are still far too prevalent.

The department’s initiative to give tablets—distributed at no cost by the company JPay—to the incarcerated is an excellent opportunity for inmates to grow, not stagnate, during their time in prison. Just as most people in society have access to free libraries and other educational materials, as a result of this initiative, people in prison will now have similar opportunities to keep learning. Although the tablets will not have Internet capabilities for security reasons, they will offer inmates the opportunity to enrich themselves by purchasing music, ebooks, and other educational materials. This will increase their chances of being productive members of society once they leave prison.

In addition to providing individuals with access to free educational materials and a secure email system to communicate with family and friends, the tablets will also make possible greater transparency and security within the prison system. The tablets will include systems for prisoners to electronically file internal grievances about prison conditions and their treatment by prison staff, as well as providing them with access to the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) reporting mechanism to report sexual abuse. Filing a grievance or PREA report without the fear of interception or reprisal would be a monumental step forward in protecting inmates from abuse and could dramatically decrease tensions within facilities.

Sheriffs in other states who are utilizing this technology indicate that the distribution of tablets has made their prisons safer for both staff and inmates. The tablets help occupy the prisoners’ time and allow them greater and more meaningful contact with their families, both of which help to improve their behavior during their incarceration.

The absence of connection with society, education, culture, and family dooms incarcerated people’s prospects for success within and outside the prison walls. If we want to give prisoners real opportunities to better themselves, we need to invest in the rehabilitation process.

This is a groundbreaking initiative that offers great promise for reducing recidivism and the high cost of crimes that might later be committed by people who regress during their time in prison. It’s about time we give prisoners a chance to rejoin society prepared to thrive, not fail.

Karen L. Murtagh is the executive director at Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York.