ALBANY – Under questioning at a recent legislative budget hearing, New York’s corrections commissioner revealed a plan to provide each of the state’s roughly 51,000 inmates with a free computer tablet.

The announcement generated global headlines, including this one in the International Business Times, “Every prisoner in New York is about get a tablet computer.” It also sparked controversy.

At no cost to state taxpayers, a Florida-based firm, JPay Inc., will donate the tablets, which will be pre-loaded with educational material. Inmates will be able to purchase music, e-books, and videos from JPay, as well as receive and send e-mail. Internet access will not be permitted. According to Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) officials, the tablets will also facilitate the filing of inmate grievances.

DOCCS Commissioner Anthony Annucci characterized the move as “groundbreaking.” Prison officials believe tablets can help prepare inmates for eventual life outside the prison walls. Nevertheless, legitimate concerns did not receive full, public scrutiny before the decision was made. DOCCS officials clearly see the tablets as important to inmate rehabilitation. It keeps them in touch with modern technology, proponents argue, and, further, may even help ease tensions within prisons.

There’s another side of the coin however. Currently, cell phones, cameras, or devices with Internet access are prohibited in state prisons. Why an exception for tablets? Why is the state confident that tech-savvy inmates will not be able to break through firewalls or other security measures? What prevents tablets from being broken or altered in some way in order to be weaponized?

New York is not the first state to take this step. In other states, victims’ rights groups have raised safety concerns. The National Organization for Victim Assistance, for example, once raised the potential for “unrestricted or unsupervised outreach where inmates can revictimize or continue to intimidate victims.” A spokesman for the National Reentry Resource Center once noted that “prisons have trouble containing all sorts of things. You’re dealing with folks who probably want to break some rules.”

The overriding point is that this decision was not, by any means, given the public airing it deserved. The decision was made at the top reaches of the bureaucracy, and that was that.

Regrettably, we’re learning about it at a time of rising concern about violence within our correctional facilities. News reports last week revealed a series of inmate fights involving makeshift weapons that led to temporary lock downs at the Elmira Correctional Facility a few weeks ago.

Also in recent days, the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, Inc. (NYSCOPBA) has renewed its call for stepped-up efforts to cut down the smuggling of drugs, weapons, and other dangerous contraband into New York’s prisons. NYSCOPBA points to 2017 as potentially “the most violent year inside state prisons since 2007” with inmate-on-staff assaults, inmate-on-inmate assaults, and dangerous contraband on the rise. 

NYSCOPBA President Michael Powers said, “These alarming statistics reinforce NYSCOPBA’s resolve to fight on behalf of our members until measures are enacted that will create a safer environment for inmates and correctional staff alike.”

Correction officers have also expressed support for legislation (S7582) I currently co-sponsor to implement an aggressive, multi-faceted “Contraband Screening Plan.” This plan would include but not be limited to the random search of visitors’ vehicles, the use of a controlled K-9 search at every state prison entrance, electronic imaging scanning, and enhanced staff training on up-to-date contraband screening procedures. We must take every step to protect correction officers, prison staff, inmates, and overall safety and security. 

It’s all well and good to focus on “groundbreaking” efforts focused on the well-being of inmates. But New York State has to keep its priorities straight.

Fundamental prison safety and security – for correction officers, prison staff, and inmates – must always be the highest responsibility.

O’Mara: Use senate website for contact

    State Senator Tom O’Mara reminds constituents to utilize his Senate website (omara.nysenate.gov) for opportunities to share their opinions on legislation and other state government issues, as well as to access a range of state government news, and information.

    “I’m looking forward to opportunities to keep constituents informed about legislative actions, as well as about state policies and programs impacting our local communities, families, workers, businesses, and taxpayers.” O’Mara also encouraged constituents to visit the website to sign up for periodic, e-mail updates on legislative actions.

    O’Mara’s website also provides opportunities to:

• Send email

• Express opinions on timely state issues through online opinion polls and surveys, including O’Mara’s 2018 “Community and Legislative Survey” that’s currently available

• Access live broadcasts of Senate sessions, public hearings, and other events,