Incarcerated New Yorkers lose access to free electronic tablets, a critical lifeline
By Matt Katz,
When Ruben Burgos was incarcerated at Rikers Island earlier this year, he used a city-issued electronic tablet to turn his poetry into music. Other detainees used the tablets to watch movies, read books, and participate in job training programs. Burgos said the tablets provided a critical outlet, helping to reduce fights over the phones, the shared televisions, and access to food.
“I feel like those tablets could be a safe haven for a lot of people,” Burgos said. “That pad was actually setting a system for when you wanted to watch a movie, when you wanted to take a class. It was setting a standard for reintegration.” He said the devices gave locked up individuals something that was theirs — and some semblance of control.
But the contract with the tablet provider, APDS, quietly ended on June 30 and was not extended for reasons that the Department of Correction has not explained. The program had been in place since 2015, and was expanded to reach almost all of the approximately 5,000 detainees during COVID-19. Now, more than four months have gone by and incarcerated people haven’t had access to educational, entertainment, and religious material that they had for years – and both correctional experts and the incarcerated say that could contribute to increased tensions and historic highs in violence.
A spokesperson for the Department of Correction said three weeks ago that the agency was finalizing a contract with a new tablet provider. That announcement could still come any day.
The canceled tablet program was entirely free for incarcerated individuals. Civil rights activists and advocates for the incarcerated are concerned that a new tablet provider may not honor the same deal, and may charge incarcerated people to use basic services, like messaging.
In New York State prisons, the for-profit company JPay charges inmates 20 cents for every outgoing email. JPay charges for other services, too — a digital music album cost New York inmates as much as $46, according to a 2020 state memo . The company had budgeted nearly $9 million in revenue over five years from incarcerated New Yorkers.
Concern that JPay or another company could come in and profit off the incarcerated is compounded by the fact that correction officials announced last month that they would soon ban personal postal mail from being given directly to detainees. Correction officials say in the future they will scan letters and deliver them to incarcerated people electronically. But if a new tablet company charges for messages, advocates worry that responding to scanned letters from loved ones will cost detainees money.
The reason for scanning mail, officials said, is to stop the flow of fentanyl-laced paper products from being smuggled into the jails. But defense attorneys, detainees, and members of the City Council question whether drugs are actually coming in through the mail. They point to correction officers who themselves have been arrested for dealing drugs inside. And, they worry that the scan-mail plan is just being used as a pretext to enable a financially predatory company to make money off of detainees and their families.
A spokesperson for the Department of Correction told Gothamist last month that the agency was close to finalizing a contract with a new tablet company. Three weeks later, a new contract has yet to be announced, and the CEO of the tablet company that previously operated at Rikers is left wondering what happened.
“ We were never invited to present to the DOC, no explanation was given to us as to why they were ending it,” said Harris Ferrell, CEO of APDS, a public benefit corporation based in New York.
APDS offered a virtual law library, substance abuse therapy, audio books, e-books, games, job skill training, adult basic education, and movies, all free to incarcerated people. One popular course was developed around the book “The Master Plan” by Chris Wilson , a former prisoner whose plan for turning his life around is now used to inspire the incarcerated. The salutatorian from the East River Academy, the school on Rikers, referenced the course in his graduation speech in June: “He inspired me not to give up, to work hard, and to know that good things come to people who wait.”
Ferrell said the APDS tablet is primarily an educational platform, but the entertainment services are a recognition “that there’s a lot of idle time that users are trying to fill.”
“We had a number of men come up to us and thank us for the tablets and the services,” Harris said. “They said it really helped bring the temperature down in the dorms because of the ability of folks to productively engage in something and have outlets, whether it was working on ‘The Master Plan,’ TED Talk videos, course work.”
Current and former detainees say one of the challenges of life at Rikers is the lack of organized activities. Staffing shortages and constant security lockdowns mean that educational and recreational programs often don’t happen, and phone call time is canceled.
Memos filed by the Board of Correction oversight body following visits last month to Rikers and obtained by Gothamist through a public information request show that at at least one jail, nobody in custody was getting recreation time. Another memo detailed detainees’ isolation — due to lockdowns, an incarcerated individual was unable to call his family after his grandmother died.
Ferrell said it cost the DOC about $1.29 per tablet each day, or about $470 a year. The DOC purchased — and still owns — the tablets, which cost about $200 apiece. To put those numbers in perspective, New York City spends more than $500,000 to incarcerate someone for a full year.
The Partnership Fund for New York City helped to fund the program, and last year reported that housing units were “calmer” as a result. Elsewhere, tablets have been found to improve behavior among incarcerated individuals. And earlier this year, a New York City correction official even cited the positive impact of the tablets.
Stanley Richards, a former city correction official who was involved in managing the tablet program at Rikers, said tablets were intended to be used as a tool for good behavior. Richards, who is now deputy CEO of the nonprofit Fortune Society, said the plan was to build out the tablets’ email and video messaging capacity; behavioral infractions could lead to a detainee losing the privilege of having a tablet, while no infractions over a period of, say, 90 days, could increase an allotment of virtual visits with loved ones.
“What I would've imagined, if [DOC] wanted to go with another vendor, you would've had some kind of transition plan,” Richards. “Pulling tablets I could imagine didn’t go so well.”
Richards acknowledged that the tablets can be difficult for officers to oversee. They had to be returned every day to be charged, and if a detainee broke a tablet he may steal someone else’s, Richards said.
Correction officials were scheduled to talk about their plan for the tablets — and perhaps explain the unannounced cancellation of the prior tablet contract — at a meeting of the Board of Correction last month. But Molina and his senior staff didn’t show up, citing the fact that the federal monitor, who likewise oversees the jail system, was visiting Rikers Island that morning.
In 2018, New York City mandated free phone calls for detainees after activists highlighted how the jails’ telecommunications contractor, Securus — which is the parent company of JPay, a tablet provider — was found to have been some detainees charging thousands of dollars for phone calls from the jails.
Now, Victoria A. Phillips, a chaplain at Rikers and social justice advocate, is worried that the predatory system is back.
“The detainees have few lifelines once in the custody of the New York City Department of Correction,” she said. “When you talk about eliminating someone’s access to mail and putting everything on the tablet, it scares me, because what does that really look like for a company only known for charging detainees in jails and prisons?”
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