WATERTOWN — Jefferson County jail inmates will soon have access to web-enabled tablets, made and maintained by the prison telecommunications company Global Tel Link.
The devices, which resemble Apple iPads with strictly-limited features, will primarily be used to facilitate virtual visitation at the jail, 753 Waterman Drive, according to Jefferson County Sheriff Colleen M. O’Neill.
“COVID is the reason we started looking into this,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “We had to close the jail down (to visitors) last spring, and we were trying to think of ways we could have video visitation between the inmates and their families.”
The sheriff said she had heard of other county jails employing similar systems with signs of success. The St. Lawrence County jail began offering tablets to inmates in 2016.
Sheriff O’Neill said it took about a year to get everything in place, draft an agreement with Global Tel Link and get county approval. The Jefferson County Legislature passed a resolution authorizing the agreement on Oct. 5, but not without dissent. Legislators Jeremiah J. Maxon and Patrick R. Jareo, both R-Adams, opposed the resolution.
Legislator Maxon explained his vote, expressing distaste for Global Tel Link specifically and the costs it charges inmates for its services.
“Global Tel Link is a horrible company,” he said. “It charges exorbitant prices, and the people who pay these bills are typically the poorest among us.”
In Jefferson County, as in every other place Global Tel Link has successfully established a presence, the inmates pay for the tablets and their services themselves from their commissary accounts. The tablets are provided at no cost to the county. Jefferson County will receive 20% of the income generated.
Every service on the tablet costs money, from reading books to watching streaming services or participating in a video call with loved ones.
The costs vary, and are often tied to how much the tablet is used. Prices can range widely, with reported costs of 3 cents a minute to read a book, or dollars per video call, depending on Global Tel Links contract with the jail.
“It’s an agreement that we made, and it depends on what service or program an inmate is signing up for, but it’s between 5 and 25 cents a minute,” Sheriff O’Neill said.
At many of the jails and prisons that use the tablet systems — Global Tel Link has contracts with many state prison systems to provide a free tablet to every inmate — prisoners work to generate the money to pay for their tablets services. At the Jefferson County jail, few inmates participate in the work programs available, and they’re not paid enough to feasibly pay for anything the tablets provide.
“Working to make money to pay for the service won’t really be an option,” Sheriff O’Neill said. “We have that, if you can call it a reverse ATM machine, in the lobby where family members and friends are able to easily put money into an inmate’s account electronically.”
With the agreement fully approved by the county, the sheriff said the tablets should be delivered to the jail within the next few weeks.
She said the tablets will only be used to facilitate virtual visitation. Rather than assigning tablets to each member of the jail’s population, which fluctuates regularly, they will be held centrally and loaned out to inmates.
“We’ll start out with virtual visitation,” Sheriff O’Neill said. “We’ll see where it goes from there. We have the ability to put books, educational lessons and movies on there, all strictly regulated, which I cannot stress enough.”
Sheriff O’Neill said the tablet programs at other county jails have proven successful at promoting good behavior and cutting down on boredom, which can make the jails safer.
“If it ends up keeping our staff safer, that is my ultimate goal,” Sheriff O’Neill said.