I am currently sitting in my cell in a Pennsylvania prison called SCI Dallas, writing this article, on a specially made, seven inch tablet. That sentence is not one I ever expected to write. That is not simply because I never expected to find myself in prison for Life as a result of my choices when I was a young nerd obsessed with the latest technology. Rather, it is because when I entered the PA Department of Corrections (DOC) facility eleven years ago, “technology” consisted of typewriters, tabletop radios, and 13″ clear-cased TVs. The later did not even have remotes fearing some terrible but unnamed uses they could be put to by enterprising inmates. For decades, despite the results of many studies and enlightened proposals, the PA DOC was openly hostile to updating technology in their institutions. They apparently believed that keeping pace with technology in prison could lead to inmate misconduct and breaches of security…though untrue; it left little hope for change.
The first crack in the “concrete ceiling” was the selling of flat-screen TVs with remotes in 2009. This improvement was a total shock to the population and a very welcomed advance…television is an inmate’s primary window to the outside world. Clearly the PA DOC made this change because “old-school” TVs were no longer available. Yet, it was a crack. Progress appeared eminent a mere year later when rumors began to circulate that MP3 players were approved for sale. Numerous other states had them, including Michigan, where roughly 1000 PA inmates were residing due to severe overcrowding. Returning inmates tantalized the population with their devices, but it would be another 5 years of waiting.
As those years passed by, hopes waned until a huge change occurred; a new Secretary, the most powerful position in the DOC, was appointed, and he publicly stated that the DOC needed to take advantage of technology. This was just one of many shockingly positive statements Secretary Wetzel has spoken which have encouraged reforms and reformers, but, of course, infuriated the rigid establishment! Soon thereafter, the rumor mills burst into overdrive… the MP3s were being replaced by tablets! Excitement was at an all-time high and many “long-timers” began saving money for the purchase of a tablet! Word of pilot programs and testing circulated, but so did fears of yet more delays.
Finally, in the beginning of 2015, ecstatic workers in the electrical shops announced to the population of SCI Dallas that they had begun running the lines for the kiosk system for the tablets! For the entire summer of 2015, we constantly tracked the progress; the exercise yard was regularly abuzz with updates like “They finished G block today!” Finally, after over 5 years of active waiting, and decades of restrictions, in October 2015 the tablets arrived! Seeing people walking around with glowing screens, a normal sight in the real world was a shock of epic proportions in our world. Initially offering “only” access to purchase music ($1.91 per song) the tablets were a huge hit, with the commissary even selling out in early 2016! The option to have your own music, and listen to it as many times as you want, was an incredible taste of freedom and normalcy. Now we could listen to a song that mattered to us! Yet, this was only the beginning; in the spring of 2016, it felt like a miracle happened! Remember, The Pennsylvania DOC for decades was adamantly opposed to embracing technology, especially in communication (this in direct conflict with their published mission statement!). Miraculously, they provided tablets with the application for two-way emails! This feature is limited to special accounts set up by family and friends. Each “email” sent costs $0.25 and is limited to 2000 characters.
Wow!, This improvement has been truly awesome! It has opened communication to the outside, to family and friends. It has enabled that most important of things; connection between people! And rumors continue to circle of more features to come; like EBooks, games, education apps, movies/TV shows, and the ability for friends/family to send pictures. These are features that target the two areas scientifically proven to improve rehabilitation, education and connection to family and friends. Many other states across the country have these features available now, so we know that they are possible. The rumor mill will certainly keep us all up to date!
So now, one year later, as we assess the impact of having tablets, on every level they’ve been a massive success—a blessing and incredibly fun! They’ve also demonstrated that technology can dramatically advance the PA DOCs mission to “rehabilitate the persons in our care while respecting the rights of crime victims”. Hopefully progress continues to be made, and the PA DOC under its new leadership continues to embrace the positive uses of technology. After all, if technology can bring the light of education, communication, and growth to third world countries, why can’t it change the 4th world of prisons in America’s own backyard?
By David Ludwig You can write to David at: David Ludwig GR6289, SCI Dallas, 1000 Follies Rd., Dallas PA 18612 (plain white envelope only)
EDITOR’S NOTE: David Ludwig is a sensitive, intelligent and articulate young man who made a terrible mistake when he was a juvenile, 11 years ago, and is serving Life Without Parole. His mentor and friend of more than 10 years, Ed Spencer, is my ministry partner in www.PrisonMentoring.com, and I have been privileged to know David for about 3 years. Throughout this time he has encouraged and uplifted many fellow inmates, as well as his mentors and friends! Pennsylvania has sentenced more juveniles to life without parole than any other state! Some of those sentences are being reviewed in light of recent Supreme Court rulings, but only if their crime was before age 18. There are many men in prison for life who do deserve a second chance, after minimum sentences of 15 years have been served. America leads the world in Juvenile Life Without Parole–more than all other nations combined. America can and must do better than that!