CINCINNATI – After the pandemic ended in-person visits at jails across the country, inmates at the Hamilton County Justice Center were allowed to rent computer tablets to communicate with the outside world.
How inmates have used these tablets has been a source of controversy — from removing the device’s battery and burning holes in windows to using social media to track down witnesses to crimes to testify in court.
Now the consequences of those computer tablets are being felt in the prison and the prosecutor’s office.
Hamilton County prosecutors asked county commissioners in September to fund four new paralegal positions next year to address a backlog of communication from tablets, including emails, phone calls and video visits.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Amy Clausing said, “When the pandemic happened, it created a backlog of cases. Defendants couldn’t go to jury trials for almost two years … So those defendants started piling up inside the jail.” “They stopped meeting in person and instead gave inmates tablets … the amount of communication outside the prison has increased dramatically.”
Prosecutors monitor inmate communications to protect crime victims and witnesses, Clausing said, but they have acknowledged the location of crime weapons and convictions.
“What you have in prison are murderers, rapists, shooters, robbers, gang members — people who, if they get out of prison, are a threat to public safety,” Clausing said. “Their messages from prison to the outside world endanger our witnesses, victims and our cooperation in prosecuting cases.”
When prosecutors last checked prison records a few weeks ago, 150 inmates were awaiting trial on murder charges, Clausing said.
“Some inmates are on the phone several hours a day … (they’re) on the phone all day,” Clausing said. “On top of that, they spend the rest of their time sending e-mail messages or doing video calls. It’s really an insurmountable communication problem for us.”
But not anymore.
Sheriff Charmaine McGuffey permanently revoked the pills from all male inmates more than a month ago after the jail’s windows were repeatedly broken.
“Finally, I just said, we’re pulling them. They’re done,” McGuffey said. “Not a single male inmate in this prison — which is about 900 men — will have these pills.”
WCPO first reported the damaged windows in March, when 38 cameras stopped working while waiting for county workers to make repairs. County spokeswoman Bridget Doherty said the jail spent $190,000 to replace the windows.
“The previous sheriff, Jim Neal, actually put these (tablets) in. He signed the contract. They were already ordered. The policy and procedure were already written and signed by him,” McGuffey said on January 4, 2021. entered service. “I respected him because I felt like, ‘Yeah, let’s give him a chance and see how he does.’ We learned in a short time that there were men in these facilities who were not using them properly.”
Over time, McGuffey said he tried different methods of administering the pills and new procedures to reduce harm, eventually deciding to remove them from male prisons altogether.
“The bottom line is it was another window,” McGuffey said. “Women, however, women were using them properly.”
McGuffey initially removed all the pills from the jail, but then decided to return the pills to 100 women a week ago because they did not cause any harm.
The county does not pay for these computer tablets. They are rented by inmates, who pay for video calls and e-mails, as well as for downloading many books, music, games, movies and TV shows.
“These inmates are struggling with addiction, they’re struggling with life,” McGuffey said. “These tablets allow women to communicate and enrich their minds while they’re here. The more we can engage the inmate, the less problems we have when we talk to officers about assaults. , when we talk about fights.”
Audrey Shoemaker, who is in prison on drug charges, said she used the tablet to video chat with her two young children and do homework with them.
“It’s already hard here. Having our tablets doesn’t make the time harder, it just makes it more accessible … the situation of being here can be handled, but whatever,” Butker said. “To see my kids and make sure they’re okay and doing well. It helps me a lot.”
Jayla Wilbon, who was in jail for a driving violation, said it was difficult weeks without the pills before McGuffey returned them to the female inmates.
“Everybody used to see each other’s cats and dogs… Now what to do with the tablets,” Wilbon said while talking on the tablet with his son and siblings.
Lacey Kelly was in jail for a probation violation and said it’s a quieter place with the pills, noting that they help with her anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We can’t go outside, it helps me get out of here,” Kelly said.
McGuffey is still not allowing in-person visits because of COVID, but he wants to resume face-to-face meetings for treatment providers, clergy and advocates as soon as possible. Meanwhile, friends and family can visit inmates for free using video kiosks located on the first floor. There are also pay phones in the prison.
McGuffey does not dispute that some male inmates used the tablets to communicate for several hours a day before they were removed. But not much.
“It probably was … it couldn’t have been a huge number of inmates because of the expense of adding 16 cents a minute. And there’s got to be someone out there willing to foot that bill,” McGuffey said. .
McGuffey said he had no idea prosecutors were having trouble getting access to the large number of jailhouse statements.
“Let me just say, if I knew it was a concern, if somebody called me and alerted me … I’d be happy to cooperate on this and we can turn it around,” McGuffey said. “We can change any of the procedures in this prison that aren’t basic rights and privileges that aren’t basic rights.”
Does the amount of contact decrease after men’s tablets are removed?
“It’s going to happen. Because the men in this facility, about 900 men in this facility, now have to go back to sharing the kiosk and sharing the phone,” McGuffey said. “You can only be there for so long, somebody else has to turn.”
Meanwhile, prosecutors are still looking into a backlog of prison connections made during the height of the pandemic.
“We don’t have any attorneys working on this right now, so it’s very necessary. The amount we’re asking is really scratching the surface,” Clausing said in an Oct. 10 interview. “The police are also busy, so when we have any concerns, dedicated officers who can listen to specific offenders will provide vital evidence at trial.”
County Administrator Jeff Aluotto said if the paralegal request moves forward in the budget, the costs could be covered by funding from the federal America’s Rescue Plan Act as it relates to the pandemic. Regional officials are expected to announce their budget in November.