On January 19, Georgia Department of Corrections Commissioner Timothy Ward deflected questions from the public about the department’s understaffing crisis by saying that conditions for prisoners had improved, because they had tablets now. But any of us could have told you that no new devices have been issued since last summer. About half the people in my facility don’t have one.
“Effective January 2022, JPAY will no longer be fulfilling facility GOAL device orders due to a depletion in tablet inventory,” GDC prisoners were informed in a January 26 email. “GDC is actively working on a solution to allow for tablet distribution to resume in the near future. Additional details will be communicated once available.”
We’d received a similar email on June 10, 2021. No one incarcerated at any of the eight GDC facilities reached by Filter reported seeing new tablets delivered since then. GDC did not answer Filter‘s inquiries regarding tablet inventory.
JPAY, the tech giant with a stranglehold on prison communications, started distributing tablets to GDC in late 2015, and promised that all state prisoners would receive one. Most of us had access to one by 2017. They were supposed to prepare us for re-entry by giving us educational materials, as well as facilitating communication with our loved ones.
But each prisoner is only issued one, and if it breaks after the first six months you have to pay for the replacement yourself. You’re not allowed to try to fix it. It wasn’t long before prisoners were selling the tablets for food, or for drugs, or to pay off debt. They’re regularly stolen, both by other prisoners and by Corrections Officers (COs).
“That tablet was my only means of communication with my family other than classic post,” one prisoner wrote to Filter, describing an incident in which his tablet disappeared during a lockdown, when only a CO would have had access to it. A fully charged tablet these days goes for up to $300 in some GDC facilities.
“There is a shortage of officers and a lack of security. Tablets aren’t going to fix that.”
GDC is currently the subject of multiple lawsuits and Department of Justice investigations. Advocates present at the January 19 hearing told Filter that when asked about calling on the National Guard to assist with the staffing crisis, Commissioner Ward responded that his agency had “taken innovative steps” to address it and again cited tablets. They appeared to be his only example.
“To think [a tablet] is sufficient enough to take the place of staff is ludicrous,” Pablo Sanchez, who is incarcerated at Dodge State Prison, told Filter. “People have been assaulted over them, robbed … the real bottom line here is that there is a shortage of officers and there is a lack of security. Tablets aren’t going to fix that.”
For those who do have them, the tablets often provide only meager relief. A paid emailing service to an approved list of contacts, puzzle games, some downloaded music and several video programs that are more informational than educational. They do not provide real rehabilitative and educational opportunities.
Nor do tablets do offer any kind of real-time communication with staff inside the prison. They are not a means of calling for help nor acquiring medical aid in emergencies. Multiple prisoners described tablet-sent requests for medical care and treatment going unanswered.
“We have only recently been able to file grievances on the [JPAY] Kiosk and tablets,” a GDC prisoner who requested anonymity told Filter. “They have more or less made it easier for the administration to deny grievances faster and easier … anyone who says tablets would assist in access and efficacy of care is talking about an idealized system that does not exist in practice.”
The tablets have even been touted as a way to allow us to report sexual assault “with one click,” “anytime day or night,” but that has not been the experience of many of us who have been assaulted. And of course, tablets are incapable of preventing assaults; tablets do not perform security rounds.
“What was the Commissioner talking about? In what way at all do tablets make up for lack of officers?”
“The only thing I would agree on is that tablets help prisoners communicate with their families,” Yolanda Hamilton, whose cousin is incarcerated in a GDC facility, told Filter. “There are risks to having a tablet, complications that we gotta consider—but we wouldn’t want them taken out of the prison system.”
Advocate Ashley Brown-Munoz described the educational programming as “like PBS videos on the tablet. That’s not going to help anyone get a job or do societal re-entry better.” Her father, Jerry Lee Brown, was fatally stabbed inside Johnson State Prison in November 2020.
“What was the Commissioner talking about? Tablets? In what way at all does possession of such a prison tablet make up for [lack of] officers?” Brown-Munoz told Filter. “Admittedly, it was good that my dad had one to type out his emails on because now I will always have those emails to look upon and read … all I got back from the state of Georgia was Jerry Brown’s mutilated body.”
In response to Filter‘s request for comment, JPAY stated that GDC “has current inventory” to replace or repair existing tablets, and that new tablets will be arriving soon. “Every incarcerated individual in GDC will receive a free JP6S once the program is deployed,” a JPAY representative told Filter. They said the timeline for deployment is currently under discussion.
“GDC wants to build new prisons, but can’t staff the facilities they currently have nor keep them safe,” Curtis, incarcerated at August State Medical Prison, told Filter. “But hey, they have new and improved tablets supposedly coming from JPAY soon. So I guess those new tablets will protect and supervise the current and proposed new facilities.”
Photograph of pending JPAY account order courtesy of GDC prisoner who requested anonymity.