By JEREMY WAHR
Capital News Service
LANSING — Prisoners are better behaved and more of them get high school equivalency diplomas when they use computer tablets, according to the Department of Corrections.
Prisoners tend to behave better to avoid having their tablet privileges revoked and because they are occupied by their contents, said Heidi Washington, director for the Michigan Department of Corrections.
“These tablets also serve as a great way to manage prisoners,” Washington said. “Overall, the use of the tablets has led to a drop in misbehavior.”
And they have significant educational value which can reduce the likelihood of a return to prison.
The program targets young prisoners, women and prisoners in maximum security, Washington said. Prisoners in the highest security level get the tablets because they are the highest risk for misbehavior and would benefit the most from the programs, such as parenting and substance abuse classes, on the tablets.
Four prisons use 750 tablets that lawmakers funded starting in August 2017, said Holly Kramer, a communications representative for the department. The department would like to get more, but they are still in the planning stage of how they will do that.
Those prisons are Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility (210 tablets) in Ypsilanti, Thumb Correctional Facility (220 tablets) in Lapeer, Baraga Correctional Facility (200 tablets) in Baraga, and Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility (120 tablets) in Ionia. The department hopes to put out more tablets next year, she said.
The department paid a one-time $271,000 installation fee for equipment to support the tablets installed at the four prisons, said Chris Gautz, director of public information at the department. It pays an annual fee of $430,000 for the use of the tablets, access to content and for technical support.
The tablets monitor a prisoner’s progress in various programs, Kramer said. Those working towards their General Education Diplomas or other programs can earn time towards listening to music, watching movies or playing games in recreational areas.
Although the prisoners take classes on the tablets, they are unable to take the GED test on the tablet, Gautz said.
Those taking classes or on a waiting list for classes get priority for tablets, Kramer said. Prisoners do not pay to use them and are allowed to take them back to their housing units and cells.
Twenty-eight other states use these types of tablets, Gautz said.
Prisoners who obtain their GEDs are less likely to commit crimes when they are released, Washington said. They are less likely to return to prison because their education makes them more employable.
More former prisoners successfully joining the workforce improves long-term public safety, Washington said.
A declining prison population has led to some prison closures.
“I had to close a prison on Dec. 1,” Washington said, referring to the Ojibway Correctional Facility in Marenisco. “These programs are allowing us to safely reduce the prison population and create better outcomes for prisoners.”
The prison population in Michigan was about 51,000 in 2007, but has fallen to about 38,700, Washington said.
The tablets are not the only new technology used by the Department of Corrections. Field agents use cell phones and laptops to assist in conducting parole hearings and managing their caseloads remotely, Washington said.
New technology is also being used for vocational training and security, Gautz said. Programming and robotics software is used at department-run vocational schools to teach the prisoners skilled trades.
The vocational school also has a 3D truck simulator to prepare prisoners to obtain Commercial Driver’s Licenses, Gautz said.
“It’s like something you’d see in an arcade,” Gautz said. “It has the big screens surrounding you, and the seat that moves to simulate driving.”
Enhanced cameras, audio recorders and anti-drone measures are used to enhance security, Gautz said.
“When we asked for money to fund these programs, legislation was approved by the lion’s share of the legislators,” Washington said. “We really appreciate the investment and we’re going to continue to inject new technology into the department,” Washington said.