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

Before we had access to tablets in California prisons, Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility was flooded with illegal cell phones. I bought one for $350. Thirty days later, I got caught with it. I bought another. 

Some might say I was plain foolish for dabbling in the forbidden. Others might say everyone has a right to uncensored communication. At the time, I liked to think I was just making lemonade out of a situation as sour as prison, that my cellphone use was harmless entertainment and a way to socialize with family and friends. 

Or maybe I was just addicted to cel phones, which are one of the biggest contraband items in prisons across the country.

Life with a contraband cell phone

On most days, I came “home” from work, sat on the bunk and played on my phone for an hour. My home was a small room with four walls and a slit for a window. The bunk was only 3 feet wide and 6 feet long, rising just a couple of feet above the floor. 

First I caught up with tweets of the day, scrolled through my Instagram feed, then read over last-minute emails. Once all the notifications were cleared and all the tweets read, I went to the prison exercise yard, grunting out pushups and chin-ups. 

But some reptilian part of my brain still thirsted. 

I am a real ham for all kinds of indulgences: double-decker Taco Bell shells in my food box (from Mom), gangster flicks starring Robert De Niro or Al Pacino, rap music, MMA cage matches — and the sleekness of that phone when it powers on. 

When I returned from the yard, I still craved easy escape through text messages and ceaseless, shallow entertainment. I opened apps to access an endless stream of content: photos of Nicki Minaj and Kim Kardashian, footage of Kevin Hart clowning, updates from people I had never met. 

With my phone use, I risked up to 90 days of good time credit — and sabotaged my time to focus on other things. I went around telling my boys: “If I got rid of my phone, I could finally do college!” 

I finally gave up my phone completely in 2017. It didn’t happen overnight, for sure. I missed the face-to-face time with Mom, who lived in Ontario, Canada, and the instant messaging on Facebook. 

But I never again touched a device, until I got a sanctioned tablet. 

Life with a prison tablet

Last year, ViaPath Technologies, the nation’s largest prison phone company known as Global Tel-Link, began providing tablets for free to all of the state’s prisoners. 

Men on condemned row were first in line. They have access to calling, electronic messaging, games and movies, same as everyone else. I’m used to hearing their voices carry over the fence when I walk by the wall of green tarp that hides their exercise yard. Usually I hear them do military-style group workouts set to hip-hop music. Sometimes I hear them discuss case laws, assembly bills and senate bills, as they shout to each other from dog pen to dog pen. 

But the other day I heard one mean hombre ask another his thoughts on the cable television series “House of Cards.” Another praised free telephone calls. Another voice wanted to know what voicemail was. 

It felt like Christmas Day when GTL rolled up to my cellblock with a sleigh full of tablets. The lady was handing them out like Oprah’s gift giveaway. I took mine and went back to my cell faster than ever before. I greedily powered on my tablet and was greeted by my old friend, Android. 

“Hello, Larry!” I thought. “I’m back on.” 

Years ago that meant entangling myself with an illegal object. But now, I don’t have to hide my tablet and charger. I don’t have to hide in bed behind curtains from prison guards and people who would dime me out for breaking the rules. I don’t have to sweat a cell search. I’m legit. 

When guards deliver mail, perform a head count or casually peak in on me, I smile with my tablet in hand. I email my family. Phone my friends. Recline on my bucket and blanket — my “Lay-Z-Con” chair — and watch movies, listen to podcasts, read news blogs, rent e-books and stream music. I even discovered the Calm meditation app.

Every single person I’ve connected with over the tablet says the same thing: They should’ve done this a long time ago! 

I’m going to be married this year after reuniting with my sweetheart. She says, “Thank God for the tablet.” 

I second that.

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.

Larry D. is a writer incarcerated in California.