Nova Scotia

Inmates at these jails were given tablets, but things went awry

A pilot program aimed at giving Nova Scotia inmates unprecedented access to online communications and entertainment has been suspended at one jail after the tablets were used as weapons and to snoop on fellow prisoners.

Pilot program suspended at Nova Scotia jail after tablets used as projectiles and to snoop on inmates

The province hopes to eventually run the tablet program in correctional facilities across the province but it's now on hold at one jail. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

A pilot program aimed at giving Nova Scotia inmates unprecedented access to online communications and entertainment has been suspended at one jail after the tablets were used as weapons and to snoop on fellow prisoners.

The so-called Telmate Tablets were introduced at the Northeast Nova Scotia Correctional Centre in New Glasgow in February 2017 and the Southwest Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Yarmouth last October.

The 13 devices were supplied for free by Synergy, a Texas-based inmate communications company, with the intention of prisoners using them to conduct legal research, get drug and alcohol counselling or for continuing education.

The problem is some inmates at the New Glasgow jail used the tablets to access the personal information of other prisoners. In one incident, an inmate physically assaulted a prisoner with a tablet.

"We had a few broken ... but that was not the reason the pilot was suspended," said John Scoville, chief superintendent of Nova Scotia's adult facilities. "It was more to do with inmates not being able to protect their accounts."

The program in New Glasgow is now on hold while security bugs are fixed and corrections officials say the goal is still to introduce tablets at jails across the province.

In some of its promotional material, Synergy touts the Telmate Tablet's ability to "turn wasted time into productive time." 

For example, it said inmates can use a tablet to watch a religious service in the morning, while later in the day use it to "read 30 pages of a Jules Verne novel" for free.

John Scoville, who oversees the adult corrections facilities in Nova Scotia, says the tablets can allow inmates to stay connected with friends and family. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

But it's the other unique uses that have jail guards concerned.

"Some are used as projectiles and thrown at staff or thrown at other inmates," said Jason MacLean, a former corrections officer from Cape Breton and the current president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union.

He said guards weren't consulted about the devices and don't want them inside the jails.

The tablets have a pay-per-use texting application so inmates can communicate with people outside the jail. However, inmates can only contact people who've downloaded the same application on their own device to protect anyone who does not want to be contacted. 

"It's another way for the inmates to stay connected with family and friends," said Scoville. "It's a little bit easier than the phone in some ways."

Inmates can also use the tablets to listen to music, read books and watch movies on a pay-per-use basis. Inmates cannot use the devices to freely browse the internet. When they're not being used, the tablets sit on chargers in the jails' common rooms. 

"We can control which sites they visit," Scoville said. 

Similar pilot programs have been rolled out in New Brunswick and Alberta.

Scoville said privacy issues forced both of those provinces to temporarily discontinue their programs, as well, but a justice official in Alberta said there's been no suspension over security problems. Justice officials in New Brunswick declined to comment citing the ongoing provincial election campaign.

Jason MacLean, president of the union that represents provincial corrections workers, says members are concerned about their safety. (CBC)

MacLean said he's contacted Nova Scotia's justice minister to find out what the plan is going forward after the pilot project. 

"Good on the employer for trying new and innovative things," MacLean said.  "And good on the employer for noticing that this was a risk — and suspending it."   

MacLean said his members see no benefit whatsoever to the devices.

"What my members are saying is they're glad that they have been removed and that they were a liability to the facility and I'm glad that management recognized that as well."

Read more articles at CBC Nova Scotia

About the Author

Preston Mulligan has been a reporter in the Maritimes for more than 20 years. Along with his reporting gig, he also hosts CBC Radio's Sunday phone-in show, Maritime Connection.