PROVO, Utah – There’s the old adage about getting one phone call after being booked into jail.
But in Utah’s Davis County, inmates can now contact family members almost any time they want during the day, and they don’t have to wait in line to use a telephone.
March 3, the Davis County Jail began issuing tablets to all inmates who aren’t in maximum security. With a tablet, inmates have access to more than 15,000 books, podcasts, movies and games, and can communicate more easily with family members.
“I’m telling you, it’s a new era in corrections. It truly is. The day where we throw you in a cell and close the door and throw away the key is over,” said Davis County Sheriff’s Lt. DeeAnn Servey.
“We are truly going into a space where we want to help you while you’re with us. We want you to leave us in a better place than when you came.”
While giving tablets to inmates is not new in Utah, Davis County is the first correctional facility in the state to issue a personal tablet to every inmate. Since the program was introduced, Servey said corrections deputies have seen immediate results.
“It’s just made our population so much calmer, happier and connected,” she said, adding that inmates are noticeably quieter and more respectful. “Everyone is on their best behavior so far. It’s working out really good.”
Servey believes part of the reason for that is inmates are no longer sitting in their cells with nothing to do. On top of that, they don’t want their tablets taken away from them.
“It is a complete privilege, it is not a right. It is a huge behavior tool that we have. And I’m here to tell you that they are wonderful. Our jail was quiet before. And now, you walk back there and everybody is just like this,” she said while pretending to look down at a tablet in her hands.
Before, jail administrators would take away privileges by turning off a TV. But it did not have the same impact as turning off a tablet.
“It’s easier to do time while in quarantine with the tablets,” inmate Conner Wolf said, according to a statement provided by jail administrators.
“It’s a lot easier communicating with my family,” inmate Miguel Negrete added.
The tablets also alleviate problems such as the jail having a limited number of phones.
Before, inmates had access to only four phones to make calls to loved ones. That led to tensions over phone usage between inmates if someone waiting to use a phone thought another inmate was taking too long to talk, or if one group declared that a phone could only be used by their group and “pressured” other inmates on the unwritten rules of who had access to it, Servey said.
Furthermore, inmates can now have more privacy by talking to family members while sitting in their cells rather than in a common area.
The result, the lieutenant said, is a vast improvement on the inmates’ mental health, especially in a time when visitation is not allowed due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“You come off the street and you go right to quarantine for 14 days. And that is really hard for a lot of people because they are just totally cut off from the outside world,” she said. “And if you’re a first-time offender, and you’ve never had this experience of being locked up, and all of a sudden you’re on almost, pretty much locked down, it’s really hard mentally.”
The jail has 500 tablets to distribute to inmates, and currently has a population of about 380 inmates. Inmates can pay $5 per month for “premium” content, which includes access to more movies, games, books and other items. E-messages can also be sent and received for a cost. The money spent on the tablets goes right back into the program. Servey said the tablet program is completely self-sufficient, meaning it costs taxpayers and the county nothing.
Inmates who are booked into the housing unit of the jail, meaning they are expected to be in the jail for some time because of a pending trial or conviction, are eligible to receive a tablet. Those who are booked into the intake area of the jail, such as a person arrested on a misdemeanor crime who will likely be released within 24 to 48 hours, are not.
Although getting a tablet is a great resource for inmates, Servey said it is not a free-for-all. Inmates cannot download unapproved content or search the web for anything they want. There is “massive firewall” on the tablets, she said, which operate on the jail’s own Wi-Fi system.
And just like regular phone calls, all calls made on the tablets or messages sent and received are monitored by jail staff.
“We actually have the technology to alert us when certain words are being used, when there’s a three-way call being made, when there’s any type of abuse of the phone privileges,” Servey said.
Every call can be listened to and every message read and approved before being sent or received.
“We screen everything that comes in and everything that goes out, and we approve it,” she said.
Servey said while the new technology makes it easier for more inmates to make calls, it also makes it easier for their conversations to be monitored.
An officer can control when the tablets are turned on and off. The tablets are passed out and turned on at 9 a.m., unless an inmate has not completed required chores such as making their bed and keeping their cell tidy, Servey said. Then, that inmate’s tablet is withheld until the chores are completed.
The tablets are turned off for one hour at lunch, and at dinner/roll call, and then collected at 9 p.m. each night and charged. If corrections officials need the immediate attention of inmates, they can turn off all the devices at the same time or send messages about events happening in the jail.
Some critics, however, don’t believe inmates should have perks such as a tablet. There are some inmates who never owned such a device before they were booked into jail. Critics question why these inmates are seemingly being rewarded with gaming and entertainment devices when they’re accused of committing crimes.
But as the lieutenant notes, “We’re not a punishment facility. We’re a correction facility.”
“These inmates aren’t going to be inmates forever. They’re going to be your neighbor. And do you want us to help your neighbor while they’re with us? Do you want us to help make them a better person? Everybody makes mistakes,” she said.
“You’re going to have your average run-of-the-mill citizen behind our walls, and they’re not all bad people. And if they made a mistake, we just want to make sure they get the help that they need while they’re with us so that they don’t keep on returning,” Servey said.
“That’s the ultimate goal is service to the community. How can we best service our community? And it’s by helping them to not reoffend and come back.”
With pandemic restrictions, Servey said the tablets have become particularly helpful because outside people who used to come to the jail to provide approximately 220 programs to inmates — such as classes on drug addiction, parenting and basic high school education courses — have not been able to do so.
The tablets give inmates access to educational tools as well as a way for them to search for jobs for when they are released. Additionally, they provide tools to help an inmate’s mental well-being, which Servey said is extremely important.
For example, religious denominations that the jail doesn’t offer services for can be found on the tablets. Podcasts on yoga and meditation can also be downloaded. That’s in addition to having more access to family members.
Servey said the last thing the jail wants is someone trying to harm themselves because they feel like there’s no hope. With the tablets, she said some inmates have commented that it feels like the jail is treating them “like human beings” and that they truly want the inmates to succeed.