By Sam Stanton
On the surface, the notion seems preposterous: Hand out Samsung computer tablets to dozens of Sacramento County Main Jail inmates.
But 40 of the tablets have been in use at the Main Jail downtown for two months, and officials say they have had virtually no problems. Inmates have used them to take classes toward high school diplomas, for parenting and domestic violence courses and, once they have earned enough points from studying, to watch preapproved movies or listen to music.
The project, which officials hope soon will offer 500 tablets to inmates, is similar to others that have been launched in jails nationwide and is not costing taxpayers a dime, sheriff's Sgt. Brian Amos said.
Instead, the tablets, which cost about $200 each, are paid for through an inmate fund that collects revenues from commissary and other purchases.
"An inmate can work on their GED, they can take anger management classes," Amos said as he stood on the fifth floor of the jail Thursday as inmates drifted toward a table holding dozens of tablets and earphones. "There's even parenting classes.
"We had an inmate here during this pilot who was learning how to fix carburetors on a car or fix brakes. There's thousands of hours of content."
The computers cannot be used for email or be hooked up to wireless Internet, Amos said. Instead, they can only connect with a secure network operated by a Chicago-based company called Edovo that offers the service.
If someone somehow managed to hack into the system, "they'd end up at Edovo," Amos said.
Although Amos acknowledges the notion originally worried some deputies at the jail, which houses about 2,000 inmates, the pilot program has proved to have a calming effect on inmates who have been given access to the devices.
On two visits last week to the day room where the devices are being used, there was something present that is entirely out of the ordinary for the cacophonous jailhouse: silence.
Jason Rogers, 43, who has been in the jail for eight months on drug charges, sat with one of the tablets studying a chapter book and taking notes on a pad.
"I think it's great," Rogers said, adding that he has used the device to study current events, such as the ongoing war in Syria, or to watch movies.
Without access to a tablet, Rogers said, he'd most likely be writing letters or watching television in the day room.
Steve Wilson, 52, who is awaiting the results of an appeal on a federal white-collar crime case, said he uses the devices to listen to TED talks and watch documentaries. In a previous stint at the jail while awaiting trial, Wilson said disputes among bored inmates were common.
"At least twice a week, when those doors popped open, there was a fight," Wilson said. "Now that I'm back I haven't seen a fight yet.
"People are taking their issues and instead of taking it out on each other, they have a mechanism of escape where they can bury themselves into that. And there's going to be more, there's going to be games, there's going to be magazines."
The tablets, which officials say can also be used to eliminate paperwork by allowing inmates to request medical care or to read up on jail policies and procedures, are designed so they cannot be altered to allow communication with the outside.
"You'd have to be a genius to figure out how to do that," Rogers said.
The seven-inch tablets cannot be taken into cells, and must be locked in a charging cart at night.
Deputy Brent Snyder, who was watching over inmates on Wednesday, said he was skeptical when he heard inmates would be given access to the small computers, noting that he wanted assurances they could not access the Internet or communicate outside the jail.
Since then, Snyder said, he has been won over by the program and the effect it has had on inmates. They are calmer, quieter and eager to use them to study and to listen to music.
To date, he said, the only problem they have had is from one inmate who took the device into his cell, and officials say they do not expect any serious violations because the inmates do not want to lose their access to the devices.
Edovo and its tablet programs are the brainchild of Sacramento native Brian Hill, a 2002 Del Campo High School graduate who says his company has about 1,000 tablets in fewer than 10 facilities nationwide, but expects to more than double that in the coming year.
As prisons and jails try to focus more on reform than simply punishment, the need for programs that can be made available to inmates is greater than ever, Hill said, and the use of tablets can help.
"You've got 2 million people behind bars in the nation watching daytime television," Hill said. "That's not a recipe for success.
"With this, there's a window, there's a chance for success."
Hill, whose father, David, has taught at area community colleges and prisons, said the genesis of the idea came from watching his father.
"This really all came because my dad was teaching at Folsom prison when I was growing up," he said.
With the tablets, he said, a facility can choose whatever programs it wants to make available, from financial skills to college courses. Each jail or prison also can ask for specialized programs, he said, noting that in Sacramento there may eventually be a demand for courses in Russian or Hmong.
The tablets are encased in hard plastic that protects them and prevents them from being opened by inmates. And, Hill said, if someone smuggled a cellphone or other device into the jail and hacked into the secure system, they would only gain access to the coursework Edovo offers.
"It'd be the most depressing hack ever," he said.
Hill acknowledged that there is hesitation from some -- especially guards -- when they first hear about the program.
"It generally takes about five minutes," Hill said. "The minute you see it live and 100 inmates put on headphones and they are quiet for six hours, it really changes people's perspectives."
Such programs have been put into use from San Francisco to Pennsylvania using iPads and other tablets and are generating a surprisingly positive response from some.
"It's a good thing," said Christine Ward, executive director of the Crime Victims Assistance Network Foundation in Sacramento. "I know you don't often hear that from me."
But, Ward said, as long as inmates are being held accountable for their crimes, it is important for institutions to offer prisoners the ability to improve and educate themselves.
"We know that they're coming back into our communities, and we want them to be successful," Ward said.
(c)2016 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)