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  • Posted Wednesday, October 18, 2017

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Behind the Tablet: Meet Alhaji

As APDS’s Creative Director, it is my goal to document and share the visual story of our tablets and the impact they have on the lives of inmates and correctional staff. One of the facilities doing the most innovative work with our tablets is Montgomery County Corrections Facility, just outside of Boyd, Maryland.

The morning we arrived to interview tablet users, Kendra Jochum, who manages reentry services at Montgomery, greeted our crew at the security check-in. We collected our gear and walked to the first door of the interlocked sally port. Kendra swiped her ID and heavy locks released, the door sliding on its track to let us pass. The door closed and locked behind us, speakers rattled, and we were cleared to enter. The second door slid open and we were inside the facility.

The interior was a mix between a public high school and a hospital, with pastel green and cream linoleum floors and matching walls.  As we walked down the halls, students noticed us through the thick glass windows of their classrooms, some turning to glance at us and some stopping to wave.

I spotted the library with rows of books. Outside, a poster hung that read “Montgomery County: the jail that reads.” Kendra set us up in an empty classroom across the hall from the library.

When Alhaji walked in, he initially was very quiet and reserved but what he offered ended up being very sincere and direct. He walked us through all the ways he was trying to create a better life for himself, one where he uses his HVAC certification to get a steady union job with good pay and benefits.

With his career goal in mind, Alhaji turned to his APDS tablet.

“With the tablet, I’m able to look to see how many different companies in the area hire or have job openings for that specific trade that I’m looking for,” he said.

Watching all the interviews from that day, I’m struck by the self-reflective manner in which the inmates were working on themselves, emotionally and mentally, while also improving their job and school prospects.

“We look at the totality of circumstances,” said Warden Rob Green. “Not only the criminogenic behavior that brings someone to our door, but the totality of circumstances around their life, and what we can do to help them go home better than when they came in the door.”

“When you’re so much indulged in criminal activities, these things don’t come to your mind right away,” Alhaji explained. “[The tablet programming] is basically like a 12-step program – once you recite it, you’re able to identify certain behavior or actions. It can stick to your mind and help you.“

“I use the tablet every day,” he said, “Some days I might be reading a book. If I’m feeling down, the tablet can be somewhat therapeutic.”

Alhaji told us that TED Talks in particular are a favorite, if unlikely, source of therapy.

“Some of the videos talk about self-esteem, some of the videos talk about dealing with your peers, and I find that very helpful because sometimes when you’re in the community, you need to learn how to deal with different people, especially in the working field. It helps with issues that I feel like I’m struggling with.”
After the interview, both Kendra and another social worker sitting in on the interviews told me how excited that particular response made them.

The tablet helps reduce violence by keeping residents engaged and avoiding idleness – which tends to leave a person more susceptible to violent acts.

“ We can reduce violence through all kinds of means,” said Warden Green. “But when you change the culture of what’s it’s like to live in a direct supervision correctional facility,” – a community model of 64 people living together in housing units and concentrating on the same goals – “it creates a culture of change and positive engagement.”

The facility is still difficult place to end up, with no frills and very few things to occupy one’s time beyond education. Life is still drab and isolating, and the people I met have little to any control of their surroundings and themselves.

“Certain ways that this lifestyle affects you, you might not want to share with nobody at all because you might feel self-conscious of them judging you. But at the end of the day, I feel like this gives you advice without actually going through talking to somebody if you’re not a person that likes to express yourself to people.”

At Montgomery, inmates use the same tablet each day, in a 1:1 model. In an atmosphere with little privacy and even less control over their day-to-day schedules, the tablets become prized positions and little escapes from a tough life.

“As long as the individual is taking care of that tablet, it’s a cost-effective way, extremely cost-effective way to deliver service to the population,” said Warden Green. “I’ve lost nothing and as an institution, we’ve gained much. I think as a society that’s trying to change people’s lives; we’ve gained even more.”

After five years of documenting stories of inequity, I can’t help but notice the different ways the system has failed people. Certain communities are cut off from the opportunity to access education and wealth, and criminalized when they try to find ways to survive. Many people are in prison for nonviolent crimes that may have been prevented through access to social services long before their arrest.

The Montgomery County Correctional Facility is in the business of meeting people where they were denied access and offering them opportunity. The tablets are an extension of this mentality. What I witnessed in Montgomery shows how the tablets can be used around the county to change the culture of prisons and corrections – from one that is punitive and focused on the individual as criminal, to one that is holistic and addresses the underlying structural causes.