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A man plays a video game on his GTL tablet.
Photo courtesy of GTL

During 17 years of incarceration, I have been housed in seven of California’s 29 prisons and experienced a lot of the comings and goings of prison life. There have been many significant developments during this time, but one stands out. 

In 2017, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) piloted a program that gave us the opportunity to purchase tablets. Prisoners no longer had to write letters that would take a week to reach their destination — and then require another week for a reply. We could send an email that reached its destination the same day; the response could come minutes later. Our families could send photos and 30-second videos. It was a new day for communication in prison.  

That contract has run out, and now we are operating under a new service provider, Global Tel-Link Corp. (GTL). The company has begun distributing free, high-quality tablets to prisoners housed throughout California’s prison system. If tablets were automobiles, our first ones would be Volkswagens and our new ones would be Mercedes-Benzes. 

Everywhere I look somebody has a tablet in their hands. Recently, I walked out of the building for yard, and only 20 people were outside — everybody else was on their machines, kicking back, talking on the phone (I still can’t figure out how they made the tablet into a phone), watching movies, playing video games, doing video chats, preparing their canteen lists, listening to music and checking out podcasts. All in prison!

But what crystallized the significance of this new era for me was observing a young prisoner — we call him Jazz — using his tablet to connect with family. He was walking around the dayroom, talking to his mom through his tablet loud enough for everybody in the vicinity to hear. She was over at his grandmother’s house. 

“Why not get on the kiosk and have a video chat with your grandmother?” I interrupted.  

He looked at me as if I spoke a foreign language. Then he hurried toward the kiosk — which is functionally similar to the tablet, but with different features — asking, “How much will it cost?”

I explained that the first call, which gets you 15 minutes, was free. I proceeded to guide him through the process.  

Jazz is 30 years old and has been in prison since he was 18. “I haven’t seen my granny in 12 years,” he explained. 

The screen lit up, and he saw her face. He had put up a valiant effort holding back his emotion, but within minutes tears began cascading down his face. I held back tears myself. 

In that moment, I understood exactly what those tablets hold. They hold civility. They hold humanity. They hold the power to connect us with the world.  

I have been drawing up a list of people close to me whom I haven’t seen in a long time. My kind daughter agreed to go to every single one of their homes with her phone so I could video chat with them. 

I still look forward to the day when these prison walls have crumbled down around my feet, low enough so that I can return to my life. But for now, doing time in California prisons is about to take a major turn. My forecast shows blue skies and sunny days.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Walter Hart is a writer incarcerated in California.