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Ever since the advent of the portable tablet, the pace of mobile technology has only accelerated. Today, one person anywhere in the world can talk to another over a live video stream or a recorded message.

Endless knowledge is at users’ fingertips. Searching for answers to questions no longer requires driving to a library or finding a book. Nowadays, the books come to you, and you can hold thousands in the palm of your hand.

The American criminal justice system has only just begun to embrace the burgeoning market of portable devices by supplying inmates with tablets, but so far, the attempts have been underwhelming.

Why Provide Tablets for Inmates?

There are many different kinds of tablets currently available at correctional facilities, but they usually do the same sorts of things. Each tablet has filters to block unwanted websites access, while providing inmates the option to pay for digital goods like music, movies, games, and communication services.

Certain inmate tablet devices offer different uses, including an outbound phone system, law library, job search, educational assistance, podcasts, music, games, ebooks, and religious and inmate services.

Others offer similar apps but promote their tablets as a way for facilities to reduce paper usage. Some even produce multiple tablet hardware formats for inmates and facilities to choose between.

However, like most applications and devices, they are not without their faults.

Poor App Reviews

For example, of the 500 apple store reviews for a single inmate communication app, most are one-star. The primary complaints involve the app freezing, showing false notifications and dropping video streams. The poor reviews only get worse from there.

Google play store reviews for another inmate communication app include problems ranging from app download failures, to username and password issues, video lag and poorly tested app updates.

This is a prioritization issue. Inmate tablet vendors are rushing out to develop new, mobile device platforms for inmates even though they can’t get the customer-facing software to run stably. It’s a little bit like putting the cart before the horse. In order for inmate tablets to be viable, there has to be a functional customer-facing infrastructure in place. Yet poor consumer apps are only part of the problem.

Unproven Rehabilitation Claims

According to certain tablet providers, their tablets assist not only inmates but also the staff in correctional facilities. These providers claim that tablets can help in five ways: by improving the facility, improving safety, improving productivity, providing opportunities for post-incarceration employment, and decreasing recidivism.

That’s all good and well, except these tablet providers have produced no substantive evidence that tablet devices do any of these things. Jail administrators need real solutions based on real data, not conjecture. At the very least, inmate tablet case studies need three things:

  1. A baseline safety/productivity/recidivism rate before tablets were introduced to a facility
  2. A statistically significant sample size to protect against data manipulation
  3. A positive change over time against the baseline rate, in order to prove tablets work

In addition to better case study information, the free tablet business model is in need of repair. By pricing apps and entertainment/educational content, the individual inmate is discouraged from using every feature of a device.

Nobody likes being nickeled and dimed for anything, especially at the inflated prices most tablet providers charge for movies, music and games. Then again, how else are those tablet vendors expected to get a return for the $100+ investments they gave away to every inmate? The free tablet model doesn’t align with inmate rehabilitation.

Improving the Inmate Tablet

Everything can be improved. Products can use higher quality materials, be more efficient to transport or include better customer service—but research based on user experience is paramount. Right now, inmate tablets are in desperate need of those perspectives.

While every business should strive towards a profit, focusing on profit potential rather than product functionality can only lead to disaster. A business that provides low-quality tablets to inmates while charging high prices for content can only survive for so long.

As vendors, we all need to be better than this. Improving service by absorbing customer feedback is business 101.