Oklahoma Prison Giving Inmates Tablets, but Some Activities, Like Sending Email, Come With Charges

An Oklahoma prison began giving inmates special tablets this week with free content such as a law library, self-help materials and some books, but communication with families on the outside and other entertainment comes with fees.

The Department of Corrections (DOC) is aiming to provide secure tablets to all inmates in state prisons. The tablets, which were designed by Securus Technologies, do not have unrestricted internet access. For inmates who want music, movies, games and television episodes, there are charges. Oklahoma's contract with Securus also charges 25 cents for emails and 75 cents to send a video message to families.

Music can cost inmates up to $1.99 per song or $14.99 per album, while streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora are free with ads. The cost of a single TV episode ranges from $1.70 to $2.28. Although streaming services such as Hulu and Netflix cost between $5.99 and $8.99 a month for a basic plan, they allow unlimited access to a wide variety of episodes.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Oklahoma prison
The prison yard at Oklahoma's El Reno Federal Correctional Institution. Oklahoma inmates began receiving free tablets this week as part of a Department of Corrections plan. Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Usually, inmates wanting to receive educational or vocational training must be escorted to a classroom or program location. But inmates can now receive those services directly on the tablet, said Mike Carpenter, chief of technical services and operations at DOC. "The education and programming, that's huge for us," he said.

An inmate at North Fork Correctional Center in Sayre, Oklahoma, Byron Robinson, who has been incarcerated since 2005—the same year YouTube was founded—said Tuesday a tablet was new to him.

"I've never even touched one of these things until today," he said. "It's mindboggling, really, how much this thing can do."

Similar programs allowing inmates to access secure tablets have been rolled out in other states, including Arizona, Connecticut and Utah, but Oklahoma is one of the first in the nation to combine the company's latest tablet and operating system.

In Pinal County, Arizona, officials started distributing tablets to inmates at the state's third-largest jail in 2019, said Matt Hedrick, deputy chief of the detention center. "It has been phenomenal," he said.

Besides helping to keep inmates pacified, Hedrick said, the jail scans incoming letters and photographs to an inmate's tablet, reducing the chance for contraband to come into the facility and allowing inmates to have access to more personal photographs.

"Before you had rules on how many photos they could have in their cell, how many magazines," he said. "Now that doesn't happen. They can have as many as they want."

There are some drawbacks to providing inmates with tablets. According to a 2019 report from the Prison Policy Initiative, the "free" tablets frequently charge users above-market prices for services.

Some 21,000 inmates are currently incarcerated by the state, making the plan potentially very lucrative for Securus.

The DOC also benefits financially from the arrangement, receiving $3.5 million annually from the communications company for the first five years of the contract, and $3.75 million for the next five years.

"Our recent analysis of these contracts suggests that they actually put the interests of incarcerated people last, prioritizing cost savings and the provider's bottom line," the report said.

Sierra Kiplinger, who was released from prison in April, said that while inmates are excited about the new technology, she expressed concern about how much inmates have to pay to utilize the services.

"The phone calls for Securus are ridiculously high, and so I'm assuming if the phone calls are high, this is going to be even higher," she said.

State Representative Justin Humphrey, chairman of the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee, said that while he supports the program, he believes public perception could be a problem.

"I don't think the public is going to like it when they see we're giving all these inmates tablets and they say, 'My kid can't get a tablet at school,'" Humphrey said.

Oklahoma state penitentiary
The entrance sign and guard tower at Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. Shepard Sherbell/Corbis via Getty Images