San Francisco issues tablets to inmates

Inmate education at the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department just got a little more sophisticated.

Beginning this week, jail inmates will have the opportunity to access computer tablets as part of the institution’s educational programs, representatives said Thursday.

The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department along with its associated charter school, partnered with New York-based American Prison Data Systems on a pilot program to provide content-secured tablets to inmates, Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi said.

The program is aimed at increasing an inmate’s ability to access education and reduce recidivism, Mirkarimi said:

“It’s all about public safety and crime prevention. … If we equip people in our custody with a desire to learn — that also requires some motivation to help them learn and to stick with it — then we are seeing less and less people return to the San Francisco jail system.”

Sheriff’s spokeswoman Kathy Gorwood said the jail purchased 125 tablets for their roughly 1,300 inmates. Some of the tablets will be sent to the women’s facility next week, she said, while the majority will remain at the men’s facility.

Mirkarimi said tablet program is a natural extension of the jail’s Five Keys Charter High School, an independent accredited charter school on the jail’s premises that has been in operation for 11 years.

In the past four years, Mirkarimi said studies of the San Francisco inmate population have shown a nearly 40 percent reduction in recidivism. Gorwood said the jail’s 44 percent recidivism rate is 24 percent lower than the state’s 68 percent average.

In addition to GED classes, the jail offers vocational training in what Mirkarimi calls “marketable skills,” including bicycle repair, solar panel installation and urban gardening, among others.

A 2014 RAND study, commissioned by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, found inmates engaged in educational programs and vocational training reduced recidivism by 13 percent.

Gorwood said the tablets would be distributed to inmates during the time they would normally use for educational programs — whether that’s in the jail’s charter school or at other classes the jail offers — and then returned when the period is over.

Inmates will be able to use the tablets to look up legal questions on the device’s law library, read books, communicate with teachers, and eventually, speak with family members.

Gorwood said:

“It’s like having a virtual classroom on the tablets.”

Sheriff’s department staff will carefully monitor the pilot program to ensure it does not breach the jail’s safety protocols, Mirkarimi said.

The same engineers who developed the network security solutions for the Department of Homeland Security and the New York City Anti-Terror Taskforce designed the American Prison Data Systems’ tablet, Gorwood said.

Mirkarimi said:

“The content is highly regulated but it is providing a certain level of latitude. … everyone is held accountable in that process.”

The pilot will last as long as there is outside funding to support it, Mirkarimi said. The jail purchased the tablets and Mirkarimi said they would likely evaluate their effectiveness after around a year.

The $275,000 program is funded primarily through the California Wellness Foundation with the Five Keys Charter School and the San Francisco Adult Probation Department also contributing some funds, Gorwood said. So far, Mirkarimi said the reaction to the tablets among inmates has been “jaw-dropping”:

“This is a significant departure from past practices.”

Mirkarimi said, adding the tablets have been “highly welcomed” by inmates.