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When Texas jails issue tablets, it comes at cost for inmates and families

A man plays a game in the Brothers in Arms cell block, a new veteran-focused program, at the Harris County Joint Processing Center, part of the county jail system, on Tuesday, April 16, 2024, in Houston.
Mark Felix
/
The Texas Tribunne
A man plays a game in the Brothers in Arms cell block, a new veteran-focused program, at the Harris County Joint Processing Center, part of the county jail system, on Tuesday, April 16, 2024, in Houston.

In 2021, Bryan Collier, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said that tablets would “fundamentally change” communication for the state’s more than 100,000 prison inmates.

The devices, TDCJ officials said, would make it easier for state inmates to communicate with loved ones, reduce the amount of contraband entering prisons through physical mail and give them access to digital books and entertainment — all on a secure network.

Three years later, the devices have proliferated nationwide and even in some of Texas’ county jails. Harris County Jail, the largest jail in Texas, plans to deploy tablets to all of the people they house — roughly 10,000 — by the end of the year, officials said.

The devices have undoubtedly improved communication between inmates and their families and friends.

But incarcerated individuals and their advocates say the devices are ultimately another tool to profit off of vulnerable people.

Unlike prisons, which house convicted Texas felons, the majority of people in county jails are being held pre-trial, meaning they have not yet been convicted of the crime they were arrested for. Still, the amount of time people spend in jail can be significant. In Harris County, the average length of stay is nearly 200 days.

For years, telecommunications companies have made money off of inmates by charging high rates for phone calls, in some cases up to a dollar per minute. As the federal government clamps down on inmate phone call costs, the tablets provide prison technology companies with new sources of revenue from a captive customer.

The devices, which look like iPads but do not provide access to the internet, are usually given to inmates for free and include some free materials, such as religious texts, a law library and self-help resources. To make phone calls, send electronic messages to loved ones and access entertainment through music, movies and television shows, though, incarcerated people or their loved ones incur high fees — some call it a “love tax.” Those fees vary dramatically across the state and are higher than the cost to make a phone call or send an email in the free world.

The company that reaps most of the profit from Texas’ jail and prison communication is Dallas-based Securus Technologies, which holds a significant share of the nation’s calling and video contracts with correctional facilities.

A spokesperson for Aventiv — the parent company for Securus Technology — said that nine jail facilities in Texas in seven counties – Harris, Dallas, Fort Bend, Hays, San Patricio, Gonzales and Fannin, use their tablets.

Advocates say that both counties and the state should make inmate phone calls free, as at least five other states have. They say taking a cut of the revenue from phone calls — as both Texas and some counties do — is unethical and that incarcerated people who can maintain relationships with family and friends are less likely to return to prison.

“Do I want inmates to be able to talk on video and via email on the tablets? Yes,” said Drew Willey, a Houston attorney who has long advocated free inmate phone calls in Harris County Jail. “I want them to be able to do it in the same way anyone in the free world can do it because communicating with your loved one is an honored constitutional right.”

The importance of connection

Michelle Ramos knows from experience that communicating with loved ones while imprisoned is important.

The 44-year-old San Antonio resident was incarcerated in Texas for more than two decades on felony robbery charges, from the age of 17 until 43. She said a close friend stuck with her throughout, putting money into her commissary account so that she could make phone calls and pay for other items she needed. Once TDCJ introduced phones to state prisons in 2009, Ramos called her friend daily.

Sometimes, she would call him to vent about an issue with an officer or roommate. Other times, Ramos needed legal help and sought an advocate. Communication also became a source of joy.

“It cheered me up on a lot of bad days,” Ramos said. “You just don’t feel as alone.”

For many, the COVID-19 pandemic emphasized the importance of connecting with loved ones. This was especially true for those in jails and prison, who could no longer see family members through visitation. Amanda Hernandez, TDCJ’s director of communications, said the agency began exploring tablets as a way to help inmates communicate with their families virtually.

Connecting with their families is one of the most effective ways to rehabilitate incarcerated people and reduce recidivism, research has found.

Communicating from prison and jail

Texas was the last state in the nation to allow inmates access to phones and email. A 2007 state law required TDCJ to find a company to install pay phones. The phones are typically located in day rooms and are accessible to prison inmates at varying levels of frequency, depending on their custody level.

Calls are limited to 30-minutes, and inmates can only phone adults on a pre-approved list. Except for calls made to an attorney, inmate calls are recorded and monitored for any illegal activity.

The state has also invested heavily in trying to keep cell phones out of prison because they can be used to coordinate escape or keep contact with gangs.

Phone calls from jail are not as strictly regulated. Each jail must provide “reasonable access” between the detained person and their attorney, family and friends. And jails must allow for at least two phone calls within four hours of the detained person’s arrival.

In 2021, TDCJ began issuing Securus tablets to prison inmates for free. Inmates could use them to make a phone call instead of having to wait for a phone to become available.

“There’s definitely more freedom with the tablets because you don’t have to wait for someone to get off the phone,” Hernandez, the TDCJ spokesperson, said. “You can just call them from your tablet.”

Hernandez said most inmates have access to a tablet from 5 a.m. to midnight every day, and they can still make phone calls from pay phones in the prison. Inmates with certain disciplinary infractions lose access to the tablets. Hernandez would not elaborate on what specific behavior would result in the tablet being confiscated.

Each month, about 5.8 million calls are made through the prison inmate tablets at TDCJ, Hernandez said.

Ramos, the former TDCJ inmate, said she used her commissary funds to pay to watch movies and television sitcoms on the tablet, which helped pass the time. But, she says not all of the people she was incarcerated with could afford it.

“I feel like the tablets are another way for TDCJ to gain income,” Ramos said. “If you didn’t have money, the tablet is basically useless to you.”

Phone calls on both the tablet and at the pay phones, also operated by Securus, are six cents per minute. E-stamps, which can be used to send electronic messages from the tablets that are similar to an email, cost 47 cents per stamp, Hernandez said. Music can be purchased for about $1.99 a song, and similar rates apply for sitcom episodes.

Hernandez said the tablets are also loaded with free games and motivational videos highlighting certain inmates who have taken advantage of the facility’s rehabilitation programs.

“We are trying to showcase that people are changing their lives and they deserve a second chance,” Hernandez said.

Profiting off of inmates?

While recognizing the possible benefits, advocates for incarcerated individuals worry that tablets are simply the latest way to profit off of the state’s most vulnerable individuals.

“It’s boring and it’s isolating and there is a lot of money to be made off of these very isolated people who have nothing to do,” said Wanda Bertram, communications strategist at the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit that seeks to end mass incarceration. “I’m concerned with watching prison-life become more and more of a marketplace. Tablets have been a vehicle for that.”

A federal lawsuit in 2000 challenged the high phone call rates in prisons and jails, forcing the Federal Communications Commission to establish regulations that went into effect in 2014. Those regulations specifically govern out-of-state calls, but many state prisons moved to lower the costs of in-state-calls as well.

In 2018, TDCJ loweredthe cost of all phone calls from 26 cents per minute to 6 cents per minute, a rate lower than the federal cap of 12 cents per minute. Some stateshave made phone calls free.

A new law, signed by President Joe Biden last year, expands federal authority to regulate the price of video calls and in-state calls. Those rates would apply regardless of the device being used. The Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act, gives the FCC up to two years to hand down new rates on phone and video calls. The new rates have not yet been released and are expected later this year.

Those regulations will not include regulations on prison inmates’ “e-messages”, though, something that advocates like Bertram believe is necessary.

UnderTexas law, revenue from TDCJ phone and video calls is split between the state and the contractor. Securus receives 60 percent of funds, and 40 percent goes to the state. Most of the state’s money goes to the Texas Crime Victims Fund and the remainder goes to the general revenue fund.

In 2017, more than $15 million from inmate phone calls went to the crime victims fund, The Dallas Morning News reported.

Jails in Texas have also begun deploying Securus tablets. Jails, which are regulated by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, are not governed by the state law about revenue from prison phone calls. Instead, each county can negotiate its own contract for inmate telephone services.

The Tribune obtained contracts between Securus and Dallas County, Harris County and Fort Bend County. Both Harris County and Fort Bend County receive commission from Securus. Dallas did away with the payments in 2020.

Fort Bend County has received $6.7 million from Securus since it began contracting with the company in 2016, said Melissa Elster, Fort Bend County’s auditor. The majority of that money — $4.4 million – went to the Jail’s Commissary Fund, which, per state law, must be used for the benefit of the people in jail, Elster said. She said the funds have been used to pay for cable television, supplies for vocational programs and hygiene kits. The rest – $2.3 million – was sent to the county’s general fund and used for the sheriff department’s detention budget.

Harris County’s 2023 contract with Securus was hailed a win among jail advocates. On the heels of a national movement to eliminate the cost of phone calls from jail, the county agreed to a contract that gives those detained up to four free calls per week and that lowered the per-minute costs of phone calls made beyond that allotment to 2 cents per minute.

But the county still receives payments made on those phone calls from Securus — a minimum of $500,000 per year — and phone calls are not free.

“Phone calls should be free, not almost free,” said Krish Gundu, co-founder of the Texas Jail Project, which advocates for jail inmates across the state.

The contract also guarantees a 10% commission on the revenue earned through inmates’ purchase of premium content, which includes music priced between $1.19-$2.23, a newsstand that costs $5.99 per month, and TV shows that cost 99 cents to $2.99 per episode.

“The companies that are manufacturing and distributing this technology are hellbent on making as much money on incarcerated people and their families as possible,” Bertram said. “Tablets provide a centralized way of doing this.”

The loss of physical mail

Advocates for incarcerated individuals also say that a hidden cost of tablets is the elimination of paper correspondence. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice announced last September that it was moving to a digital mail platform, where all incoming physical paper mail would be scanned and uploaded to the inmate’s tablet, except for legal documents and other privileged mail, which would go directly to the inmate.

Hernandez, the TDCJ spokesperson, said the agency made the change because of an increase in drug-related prison deaths.

“Basically people would soak the paper in fentanyl, K2, meth, and people would smoke the paper,” Hernandez said.

County jails have also followed suit, uploading paper mail to tablets. Advocates for those in prison and jail say the switch to digital mail has been riddled with error. Legal mail has been opened and delayed, said Molly Petchenik, an attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project, and people miss the physical copies of letters they used to savor.

“Sometimes the legal mail accidentally gets swept up in the scanning process,” Petchenik said.

She said she knows of situations where legal mail has been opened, violating attorney-client privilege. And although the Aventiv spokesperson said privileged calls can be made on the tablet, Petchenik said she doesn't feel confident that those calls are confidential.

Others say the tablets are glitchy and can be hard to use.

“The most common thing we hear about the tablets is how they are broken or they are not working or that we pay for this and we didn’t get that,” Gundu said.

A different model

In the fight to make inmate phone calls free, Dallas County is close.

The county negotiated a contract with Securus in 2020 that dramatically reduced the cost of phone calls, in part by foregoing the millions of dollars it had previously been making through its contract with Securus.

The new contract set a rate of about one cent per minute for phone calls, which at the time was one of the lowest in the country. The county gave up about $3 million in revenue in order to reach that deal.

Reaching that deal was a yearslong battle for Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who believes the county should not take money from inmates and their families.

“When you think about what our job is as a county, it’s not to make money off the relatives of the accused,” Jenkins said. He added that giving inmates a connection to their families helps reduce recidivism, which in turn saves the county money that it would otherwise have to spend on housing that person.

Dallas County was able to recuperate the $3 million it lost from the Securus contract through increased tax revenue, Jenkins said. Dallas is among the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country.

Dallas County did propose a deal that would recover payment from inmates who damage their tablet, which Jenkins said hadbeen happening on occasion. The money would come from the detained person’s commissary account.

“The hope is that if it’s going to cost you something, you won’t damage it,” Jenkins said.