Android in prisons: Meet the man who put Galaxy Tab S2s in Rikers Island

Christopher Grewe is the CEO of the American Prison Data Systems, a startup that brings tablets to inmates around the U.S. for education and rehabilitation.

grewe ai2
Credit: Lea Suzuki at The San Francisco Chronicle

The United States has a prison problem—namely, the largest prison population in the world and the second-highest per-capita incarceration rate. These statistics are partly what inspired me to speak with Christopher Grewe, the CEO and founder of American Prison Data Systems, or APDS.

Grewe may not be an Android developer, or even a die-hard Android user, but what he’s doing with Android tablets in the U.S. prison system is remarkable.

The concept is simple: Seed inmates with feature-limited Galaxy Tab S2s. The inmates typically have access to only educational and vocational apps, through in some cases they can use the tablets to read ebooks, prepare for upcoming court cases, or communicate with family members. “We provide technology solutions that provide better outcomes for the incarcerated,” Grewe said at the beginning of our interview. “Prisons don’t need to be dangerous places. They can be constructive.”

Greenbot: How did you decide on Android tablets?

Grewe: If you bring in anything, whether it’s a pencil or a piece of paper, the first concern is whether you can use it to hurt somebody. So we needed to look at the physical form factor of the devices, and that’s why we settled on a tablet. They don’t have any peripherals, like a mouse or keyboard; and they can be made physically safe. In our case, we’ve done that by developing a specific kind of enclosure for the tablets to tackle physical safety.

10inchtablet APDS

The Samsung tablets used by APDS are encased in a physical enclosure for extra safety.

Android tablets can be manufactured in lots of different ways, and they’re inherently cheaper. They’re not perceived as luxury items anymore, and that helps. It’s also an open architecture, which is really important because we cannot allow our tablets to function in the correctional institution the way tablets function for consumers. Apple and some others build devices to delight the end-user. We’re happy to delight people, but safety comes first. We also decided on Android because we knew we wanted a tablet that was inherently simple, safe, and an effective platform for delivering content.

Then we had to look at Android versus iOS and whatever else might be out there, and very quickly decided that Android and Google is the way of the future. It’s a nice balance between being stable, always improving, and open, so you can muck around in there for safety reasons.

Greenbot: How did you tweak the Android OS so that it’s safe for inmates to use?

Grewe: We needed to make sure that incarcerated people can have access to all the good things that the Internet and the digital world can provide, but we can’t allow the bad things that people are terrified about. We don’t want an inmate to use a digital device to contact a former victim, to intimidate a witness, to engage in continual criminal activity, or to do anything that would allow them to impair the safety of the jail or prison.

[We also looked at] mobile device management (MDM) players. We looked really carefully and ended up with AirWatch, and I think we made a really good choice. We also developed a custom SDK that allows us to get even more deeply into the operating system so we can remotely control it. The experience is enjoyable for the inmates, but much more shut down. You can’t get to the settings, and there’s a secure browser and special apps.

We also have human beings in Cleveland, OH who monitor our devices, so when a device [sends an alert], there is someone paying attention. It works both ways. If, for some reason, a warden said they wanted all those devices turned off, they can dial a number, and we’ll remotely turn them all off.

A lot of our theory of what to do with the technology was to take things that exist off the shelf and customize them to this particular use case. We’re now at version 2.0, and we’re building version 3.0. I’m thrilled to say that we’ve had more than three million personnel hours of use on the tablets and not a single digital safety issue. No one’s ever gotten to a website they weren’t supposed to.

grewe ai1 Lea Suzuki at The San Francisco Chronicle

Grewe (middle) leads a tutorial of the APDS tablets for a group of sheriffs from the SFPD. 

Greenbot: So how do the inmates actually get on the Internet?

Grewe: The vast majority of the tablets connect only over Verizon’s 4G LTE cellular data network. In many of the places we go, even a relatively hardened institution, we walk in and there’s more than enough ambient signal from Verizon’s network. The worst case scenario is we use a repeater.

We’ve intentionally disabled Wi-Fi, and we’ve done that for a variety of reasons, but it ultimately comes down to safety and security. It also has to do with the needs of our end-users in the prisons. Wi-Fi requires installing a lot of infrastructure. Nobody likes installing cable, and prisons really hate it.

Greenbot: How have the inmates reacted?

Grewe: A couple of months ago, we were deploying at Rikers island. One of the young men went back to his bed—it was more like a basketball court with 50 bunks bolted to the floor—and he started crying. There were a lot of people there and one of the very senior people of public corrections went to him and asked, “Why are you crying?” The kid said, “This is the first time in a long time that I felt like someone was treating me like a human being.”

It’s hard to understand how important technology is to young urban kids. For a lot of these kids, that was their whole life: texting, playing games, and listening to music. Being able to give them some of that back in a constructive way makes them happy, helps improve their behavior, and makes the institution safer. That makes a lot of things possible.

Greenbot: What do you say to skeptics who believe that equipping prisoners with tablets is simply rewarding them for bad behavior?

Grewe: There’s a well-known principle in psychology called the gifting effect. Even if you gift somebody something really small, it predisposes them to give back, and we’re seeing that.

Technology has improved every aspect of our lives in the last decade. This is one of the very few places it hasn’t touched yet, or had all the impact. I’m very thankful to Google and Android developers—they have created a little bit of an erector set for the technologists so that we can adapt very easily to new end-user’s use cases.

Greenbot: What’s next for the program?

Grewe: Our next stage is Chromebooks—not for every individual quite yet, but you can imagine an institution where there are 500 individuals, all who have a tablet, and then there’s a room where there are 25 Chromebooks that you can sign out when you need them for things like learning a foreign language. It’s beautiful for us that those architectures can play nicely together.

Greenbot: What was your first Android device?

Grewe: I had a friend who was developing a product called WIMM. The first Android device I ever held was a prototype of something he was building. And then I adopted Android tablets pretty quickly.

Greenbot: If you could only have one app installed on your phone, what would it be?

Grewe: I’m really dependent on Uber. It’s the one app I use almost every day.

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