It’s not as invasive as the dystopian world described in George Orwell’s 1984, but technology is allowing staff to manipulate the television programming watched by inmates at the Lincoln County Jail in Newport, Ore.
Online since May 16, the system includes the ability to deliver self-help and informational programs to TV watchers in the jail through a Web interface. The technology features an on-screen “broadcast crawl” ticker that can deliver messages about services that can assist inmates while in custody or after their release, or announcements from jail personnel.
In addition, each TV program is framed by a series of targeted advertisements and informational graphics. So while TV has traditionally served as a recreational device where inmates chose what they wanted to view on basic cable, it now also doubles as an instructional tool.
While various TV and media broadcast solutions exist to restrict access to certain types of programming, it isn’t common among correctional facilities, according to Sgt. Tom Graham, a spokesman with Lincoln County Jail.
In an interview with Government Technology, Graham said many of his colleagues nationwide had makeshift programming systems where DVDs or videos could be streamed from a control room to a TV, but they weren’t built specifically for correctional needs.
Lincoln County Jail’s new system provides content control through a broadcast device from Wegener Inc., a national technology company. Cable TV or other content is uploaded to a media server and fed through the device. The technology then reformats the content to appear within the confines of predefined signage that appears as a border around the television screen.
So instead of manually putting a movie or video on seven separate TVs at the facility, staff can target each TV individually with specific messages or broadcast them facilitywide.
“Using our inmate televisions for more than just watching TV is a significant step in the Sheriff’s Office efforts to identify cost-effective ways to deliver meaningful and successful programs to inmates,” said Lincoln County Sheriff Dennis L. Dotson in a statement. “We can now deliver cognitive behavior and substance abuse education programs through the television, starting the inmate on a self-guided evaluation and change process.”
Graham said in addition to the improved automation and control, the technology is helping deputies be more efficient with their time.
For example, the jail staff was going to close the jail’s recreation yard last week because of vandalism that needed to be cleaned up. But instead of making the announcement through in-person contact by staff members, the notice was given across the ticker function on each of the TVs in the jail’s common areas.
“What we found was that no one came up and questioned it — everyone got the message,” Graham said. “There wasn’t a lot of ‘why’ because it was stated in there. Normally if we say the rec yard is closed, inmates would ask why and it’s a continuous use of deputy time. It was a small event [but] it was interesting that we were able to pump it out to so many so quickly.”
Lincoln County Jail has deployed seven of the broadcast devices used to control programming. The technology cost approximately $25,000, and the jail pays roughly $300 per month to Dolphinio Business Services, which handles the cable TV subscription, its connection to the system and overall maintenance. The money was provided out of the jail’s inmate commissary fund.
Inmate commissary funds typically are derived from expenditures by inmates, which can then be used to pay for programs and technologies that benefit inmates.
Graham said staff members at the jail are examining future uses of the technology. One of the ideas is to find a way to integrate the television controls with other databases, such as its commissary system. This way the staff can program the ticker to update inmates watching TV when funds are deposited into those particular inmates’ accounts, or other informational items like upcoming court dates. Right now, all of that information would have to be uploaded manually.
Currently the jail’s staff is looking at establishing the self-guided educational programs mentioned by Dotson. The jail is researching workbooks and videos that inmates can watch and work through on their own. By uploading the course materials to the system’s media server and scheduling times for those who want to participate, it would eliminate the need for staff instructors.
“It is pretty experimental, and we’re not quite sure what the outcome will be,” Graham said. “But we’ve taken the point of view that something is better than nothing. We find a lot of our inmates are seeking help, but they just don’t know where to start.”
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.