VANGUARD INCARCERATED PRESS: The $500 Flashlight

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By John L. Orr

I awoke at about 5 a.m. in the dark confines of a b-man cell at Mule Creek prison in California. Conscious of my five slumbering companions nearby, I quietly reached for a morning vitamin D set on my locker next to my bed. The pill had other ideas, rolling onto the floor, bouncing off two cardboard boxes and hiding in the darkness. No problem. I picked up my $500 flashlight, tapped the screen twice and a soft light readily illuminated the wayward pill. The handy torch was once my one-year-old state-issued GTL/ViaPath tablet; about the only dependable function of the two pound gadget. There is no internet access on the device.

The device has many apps but none as reliable as the flashlight. Reportedly, there are some really cool resources and functions on the tablet but many remain hidden because of a lack of instruction or available tech support infrastructure. GTL provided a three-minute personal tutorial when we signed up last year but nothing else. The procedure was like an explorer handing a cellphone to a caveman, just discovered on a mountaintop, and walking away while saying, “Call me…”

A substantial number of inmates issued the tablet are elderly or individuals with no or limited computer/cellphone experience. The only cell phone I ever held was in 1991 just before my arrest. The device was the size of a Denny’s meatloaf but a bit heavier; the phone smelled better, too.

In a 2022 San Quentin News article, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) GTL, tablets were touted, “the enhanced communication project aims to strengthen bonds between the incarcerated population and their families and communities.” The phone and messaging capabilities fulfill this proclamation—when operational. Everybody loves free stuff.

However, even after four prior prison rollouts, the Mule Creek SP issuance is flawed with dropped calls, movies (paid) interrupted 6-8 times each showing, inaccessibility to the tablets during peak hours (a.m. hours, p.m. post dinner hours and high-volume use on weekends) and dead zones in many cells.

Rotation of “new” movies became an obvious scam reminiscent of the used car dealer’s bait and switch trickery. After six months of the same movie selections, many inmates ceased paying the monthly fee until replacements were offered (despite several displaying frontal nudity). A dozen, or so, new videos popped up and subscriptions rose. Three months later viewing again stagnated, as did the fees. The cry of “new” movies then went out. The $2 payment is required to view fresh selections but over 50% of these videos were from the initial offerings nine months previous, simple bait and switch. Recycled cinema.

Offering full length animated movies, geared to the 8- to 15-year-old demographic, also seems absurd. The GTL business model needs examination: “heist” films, an excessive number of Marvel comic based and ultra-violent movies seems to have little to do with “rehabilitation,” and more aimed at profit.

Difficulties and frustrations using apps on the tablet abound. “Law Library” is a minefield of ambiguity. The primary mission of inmate legal researchers is pertinent case law; this function was excised and is not available like on physical Law Library computers. The benefit of a handy tablet is nullified.

The free app offers the CDCR department operations manual, parole preparation references (DAPO), as well as Health Care manuals and procedures running as high as 600-800 pages. Only 20% of these lengthy volumes have “GO TO” page number functions. The rest require scrolling from the table of contents to the desired location in the reference—an antiquated method eliminated by the advent of modern computers in about 1995.

Even the “CALM” app, designed to help ease frustration/stress, can add to anxiety. Presented with a high-quality, multicolored screen depicting a serene mountain lake, the screen is obliterated by a drop down “subscriber profile” (nonfunctional) or references to internet connections/sharing unavailable on the GTL/CDCR issued tablet. The options offered on the CALM app are seemingly endless, but accessing a babbling brook, wind-blown prairie or snowy pine forest scene is unreachable with so many icons to choose from. I tapped and tapped on the beautiful screen images/icons like a tweaker picking at imaginary crumbs on a spotless carpet—CALM turned to chaos and rage at the secretive device.

The “HELP” function provides a 2-minute video tutorial geared to revenue-generating features like account transfer of funds, printing of messages/photos and video calling. Many of the instructions are depicted and demonstrated on tablets not indigenous to those issued at Mule Creek.

Granted, there are many helpful apps useful for entertainment, and learning/research, readily available and accessible. However, without instruction apps or tutorial tech support many inmates resort to free video gaming and the ever-reliable $500 flashlight.

John L. Orr is incarcerated at Mule Creek State Prison

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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