Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler pushed a novel solution Monday for closing what he called the "revolving door" of ex-offenders returning to prisons.
Give inmates tablet computers.
As Gansler envisions it, the proposal would help offenders build both education credentials and social support before they leave prison.
The gubernatorial hopeful says the wireless devices would replace brick-and-mortar libraries and classrooms in the state's prison system, providing each inmate with an Android tablet that could connect with e-books, the state's library system, law resources and online learning programs.
They would also allow limited — and monitored — email access, so inmates could connect with family members.
"It has to work," Gansler said. "It's common sense that it will work."
The tablet idea is one element of Gansler's 10-part proposal for integrating former inmates into communities. Statistics show that roughly half of the offenders who are released will return to the state's prison system within three years. The most recent state data available puts the rate at 43 percent.
Gansler, who presented his plan in Baltimore at the latest in a series of meetings outlining his platform for governor, called the state's approach to re-entry a "policy mess."
The Android proposal drew concern from some in the corrections world, particularly in light of the recent federal indictment of a dozen Baltimore City Detention Center guards, who are accused of smuggling in cell phones to help the Black Guerrilla Family gang run a drug ring.
"There's a lot of challenges with providing Internet access to inmates," said Nancy G. La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. "There's a real concern — I think a valid one — that access to the outside can threaten both inmates and staff.
"While it's innovative to think about delivering education with new technology, a lot of things need to be sorted out."
In a presentation to the Corrections Technology Association in June entitled "iPads for Inmates", the Virginia firm HomeWAV LLC listed what it said were the positive benefits: social and job skills, mentoring and rehabilitation. The cons: "gangs," "nudity," "corruption."
"It's a fascinating concept," said Robert Coombs, spokesman for the National Reentry Resource Center, a policy group.
Only a few inmates in Maryland have Internet access, state corrections spokesman Rick Binetti said. All are low-security, pre-release inmates who are permitted to use the Internet only to look for jobs, and only under the direct supervision of correctional officers.
Several states have set up Web kiosks that give limited access to inmates. A company called JPay sells a $49.99 mini-tablet to inmates in prisons in Virginia and Louisiana. Access is limited to music, games and a few other applications.
A New York startup called American Prison Data Systems has been shopping the idea of an indestructible 7-inch Android tablet that states would purchase for inmates' personal use. CEO Christopher Grewe said he expects to finish negotiating pilot projects in three states by the end of 2013.
He proposes giving one to each inmate in a low or medium-security prison to limit potential fights. He said they would be designed so that they couldn't be converted into weapons.
Each device would come with free access to libraries and legal resources, and cost $500 per year per inmate.
Maryland spends an average of $38,383 per year per prisoner, the Vera Institute of Justice reported last year. Grewe has pitched his idea as a way for states to improve education opportunities for inmates and save money on maintaining expensive classrooms and libraries.
While prisons have been quick to adopt new forms of technology for surveillance and security, most have been hesitant to make technology available to inmates.
Grewe said that algorithms and a 24-hour center in Ohio would scan all outgoing and incoming email on a 12- to 24-hour delay, and that devices could be heavily restricted or shut off remotely.
"We can filter it five ways to Sunday," he said. Prisons, he said, "can't postpone dealing with the digital revolution any longer."
Gansler, in pitching his idea to a room full of people who work with offenders, suggested anyone who has seen the Oscar-nominated film "The Shawshank Redemption" knows libraries can be used as a means of transporting contraband.
Replacing them with more secure tablets, he said, would save money and make sense.
"We have the ability in the 21st century to educate children online," Gansler said. "You can learn a language online. … Why can't we educate our offenders?"Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun