As the coronavirus pandemic forced the world to go virtual, Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden saw an opportunity for inmates awaiting trial to stay connected to the outside world. The jail has made it possible for inmates to make calls, message their families, read books, continue their education, plan for future careers, listen to music, and even watch movies using a new tablet program.
The sheriff believes the tablets are a secure way of helping prepare his residents for a return to the community as better people — but some features of the new program are raising concerns.
The tablets, which the sheriff said did not cost the taxpayers any money, are available to any inmate who can afford them.
What you need to know about tablets inside Mecklenburg County jail
In response to a proposal by Global Tel Link, the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office received 1,036 tablets for its detention center and 277 tablets for its juvenile detention center.
The content on the tablets is limited to music, movies, and books approved by the facility, according to MCSO. Inmates are also able to call and message approved family members.
GTL signed the contract with MCSO in September 2019, but wiring for the connectivity infrastructure, which was funded by the private company, was delayed due to the pandemic, according to the sheriff’s office.
The sheriff granted inmates access in November and December of 2020. Those eligible inmates included residents in solitary confinement.
The current contract with GTL runs through December of 2022.
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Inmates can only access the “secure” tablets within the housing unit and there is no internet access, according to MCSO.
Per MCSO’s tablet policy, the devices are available for use between the hours of 8:00 and 11:00 AM, 1:00 and 4:00 PM, and 8:00 and 10:00 PM for all housing units. Inmates can use the tablets in their cells if there is reception.
GTL and inmate content subscriptions fund the program. All revenue goes to GTL.
Inmates are given one pair of “breakaway” headphones that can’t be used to harm or strangle.
Why tablets were given to inmates
“We’re trying to better those people while we have them here,” McFadden said of his reasoning. “Do we just let them just sit there and they go back out broken? We’re trying to just make them better citizens, better neighbors when they go back into the community. Yes, we will be criticized. Yes, people are going to talk about it, but bring me a better solution and help me better these men and women.”
The sheriff, through GTL, supplied more than 1,300 tablets to inmates in late 2020. McFadden said GTL, which worked with previous sheriffs to lay the groundwork for this technology, approached him with the idea of widespread tablet usage. The sheriff said the timing just made sense.
He said MCSO does not collect any of the money from the program by choice.
“We don’t want any money from it,” he said. “I think the taxpayers should understand, we’re trying to better these people who are coming out.”
He believes one way of bettering his residents is giving them access to their family.
“They can communicate with family,” the sheriff said. “We try to limit it to particular people that they put on their call list and vet them out – and of course everything is monitored here.”
McFadden said the network is highly secure and there’s no access to the internet.
“It is a secure network that they can go back and forth and send messages to their families, but it’s also for educational purposes,” the sheriff said. “Do we think we have all of the kinks out? We don’t know at this point. We’re finding out what they can do and what they can’t do.”
The sheriff said he isn’t aware of any security issues with the tablets thus far.
Concerns about inmate tablets
While the Fraternal Order of Police understands the sheriff’s intentions, a spokesperson said the FOP worries about safety, who is accessing the tablets, and the message being sent.
“Anything like that can be hacked and we’re worried that those security systems could fail,” FOP Lodge 9 Public Information Officer Yolian Ortiz said. “Our worry is definitely security, that the tablets can be used to kind of continue that criminal activity. Knowing how sometimes governments work, a lot of this tracking is just not done or it’s very minimal.”
Prison tablets in other states, including ones created by GTL, raised security concerns in 2018.
The tablet policy, provided to WCNC Charlotte at our request, allows inmates to use the tablets and their wide-ranging content eight hours a day. Access is not just for those inmates in the general population.