Some of us sat in the education building at Dade Correctional Institution in Miami. Some worked in the kitchen or in laundry. Other guys were at routine appointments at the medical clinic or the classification department, getting insulin or having a yearly progress review.
Regardless of where we all were on Friday, September 22, everyone was surprised by the emergency order to return to our cellblocks immediately. Was there a shakedown? A Life Flight helicopter call after someone was injured in a fight? No one knew what was going on until we saw the property room orderlies.
“You gotta turn in your tablet,” one of them hollered across the yard. “We’re coming around to confiscate them block by block.”
Everyone was stunned. We’d heard rumors for months about losing our electronic devices for a supposed software update to prevent us from “jailbreaking” our devices, a clever tech hack that would allow us to use the tablets for internet and phone calls. But such rumors, which travel across the prison-gossip grapevine we refer to as inmate.com, are often wrong.
We didn’t really believe the prison would take the tablets away, even for what was billed as a short period of time. The Department of Corrections issues the tablets, and the for-profit company Securus Technology, which runs its JPay digital communications system, makes millions of dollars from our families sending emails and pictures, and from our own entertainment purchases.
Hearing this news, many of us lamented how much worse things would be without our devices. An assortment of problems would arise. But being without tablets also turned out to be liberating, in a way.
In prison, tablets are a lifeline to the free world. They give us a way to deal with the boredom of prison life — a boredom that can drive a person mad. If residents like me can play video games on a tablet, an hour no longer feels like a day. When we use the tablet to look at a photo of our children or view a video message from an uncle, we stay connected to family. Listening to a favorite song can ease the pain of a hard week.
But most importantly, the Florida Department of Corrections now employs Securus as a third-party vendor to scan and digitize our postal mail, making incoming mail only viewable on our personal tablets. Not having the devices forced 70 incarcerated residents to use a communal kiosk each day.
When I walked into my dormitory, the mood was sullen. Guys stood against the peeling paint on the day room wall, complaining about losing our main source of communication and entertainment. Losing this access was devastating for some of us and a major inconvenience to all. If the average adult is online four hours a day, the average prisoner uses a tablet twice as much.
“I’m sorry about this, fellas,” our warden said when he walked around to each wing. “JPay gave us no notice and I have no idea when you’ll get your new tablets.”
For the first few days after we learned we were being forced to give up our tablets, guys in my dorm did nothing but complain. It was a shock for us to lose our biggest pastime. Arguments and fights erupted over whose turn it was to use the kiosk to check incoming mail.
Then something strange started to happen: Some people started to enjoy the time away from the screen.
Men who never left their bunks and watched movies all the time started to play cards with other inmates. People who never picked up a book started reading novels. Men started to exercise, write letters, draw, or just sit around and talk. They engaged in activities they ignored when they were addicted to their technology.
Residents would still offhandedly complain about the loss; they would still speculate on when they would get their tablets back. But over time, those conversations became less frequent. People found other activities to keep busy.
“I was anxious at first because I’d become dependent on my tablet and was at a loss about what to do with my free time,” said James Stine, an incarcerated artist serving a life sentence. “But then I realized that I’d been neglecting things, like painting and cleaning my area. I played chess for the first time in a month. I had to purposefully think about how to fill my day.”
We all began to look for something else to do. As a writer, I already had a craft that I could spend more time on. Instead of watching movies on weekends, I edited essays and did more reporting. While some men chose to sleep away the extra hours, many others became more productive.
By the time I left prison in late December, there was still no information about when the prison would reissue tablets. I heard a rumor that they would be returned by Christmas, but that day came and went. Even more annoying, the warehouse orderlies told everyone that the new tablets were sitting in the warehouse, boxed up and ready to be passed out. The officers in charge just didn’t want to hand them out because of laziness, they said.
Given that our postal mail is delivered digitally and emails have become a part of everyday life inside, the tablets are essential. But it was also evident that men and women in prison depended way too much on electronic stimulation and screen time. There has to be a balance — just like in today’s free society.
When I said my goodbyes, some guys were still complaining about the boredom, but I also noticed that many others were finding new joy in old pastimes. A few of them vowed to keep their new habits going even after they got their tablets back.
“I love reading again,” said incarcerated resident Jason Fisher, adding that he planned to continue to check out books from the library. “I was a recluse who kept to myself because I had a gadget, but now I’m stopping to talk to people and have more time to interact.”
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.