A Clear Plastic Tablet for Prisoners: The Motherboard Review

You could kill someone with this thing, if you wanted to.

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Dec 15 2014, 6:40pm

​Image: Author

As most of us consider this holiday season whether or not we really need whatever current deluxe/Pro/Air/Mini version of the iPad or Surface or Nexus tablet, some Americans will be asking for the JP4, the first tablet designed specifically for prisoners.

The first thing you notice about the JP4 is that it is completely clear (as are the Koss-brand headphones that come with it). The reason for that is obvious: It's to prevent inmates from smuggling in contraband.

The JP4 has a touch screen and resolution reminiscent of something I used a decade ago. You'll also notice is that it's quite large, made out of hard plastic, and takes four AA batteries—the thing is build like a tank. Besides supposedly surviving three-story falls without breaking, it seems like you could easily use this thing to bash someone's head in.

But, apparently, the use of the JP4 as a weapon is quite rare (if it happens at all).

"They don't use these as weapons because they rely on these tablets all day," Ryan Shapiro, CEO of JPay, the company that makes the JP4, told me. "It's something they love and keep for themselves—if they used it as a weapon, it'd be taken away from them."

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Likewise, the clear plastic isn't the only security feature. It's molded in such a way that it'll break if you try to open the thing, and each tablet is hard-coded to its owner. When it's plugged into a prison kiosk that allows its user to send email or download songs, books, or movies, if the number doesn't match, it's locked down.

So far, the tablet is available for $50 in seven states. The company has sold 55,000 of them, and Shapiro says that, in the 100 prisons it's available in, more than half of the inmates actually buy one. In order to sell the tablets, the prisons also have to install an internet kiosk that JPay sells. The kiosks are somewhat more common nationwide.

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But is it any good?

I suppose that's relative. It costs practically nothing and it's probably more fun than many entertainment and education options prisoners have these days.

The JP4 comes loaded with educational videos about volcanoes and math and latitude and longitude and how to the three branches of government work together. It comes with songs by Usher and Hoobastank and Tank. It's got a bunch of children's nursery rhymes and history books and Treasure Island preloaded. It's got Sudoku and a game called PushBlock and a calculator and an FM radio.

It does not have a web browser, but it does have email (which can only be used when hooked up to a JPay kiosk, meaning everything is tracked and locked down). At these kiosks, inmates can buy new songs and videos using credits given to them by their family and friends. It's not hard to imagine a tablet like this becoming a lifeline for someone who has to sit in a cell most of the day.

Image: Author

Shapiro says that basically everything that's available on iTunes or Spotify is available (albeit censored) on the JP4, and educational and self-help videos, including some from the popular Khan Academy, are available for free.

Shapiro says that the JP5 should be coming sometime within the next year or so, and that'll look more like your standard tablet and will have typing capability. The plan is to start offering university and high school courses.

So, yeah, technology in prisons is dismal, and the JP4 looks and feels like a Game Boy Advance. It's clunky and it's old and it's not all that intuitive to use. But when your options are limited, I suppose you'll take whatever you can get.