Westmoreland County Prison Warden John Walton had some good news for the county’s newly seated prison board during its first monthly meeting of 2020.

A new program that allows inmates to rent movies and books, play games and make phone calls from tablet computers provided by the company that operates the jail’s inmate telephone system generated more than $161,000 in usage fees during its first full year, Walton said. Those fees paid to the county are in addition to the annual fee of roughly $472,000 that Global Tel Link (GTL) pays to the county to operate the phone system.

The revenue boost comes at a time when county officials are looking for ways to help a budget crunch that saw the last board of county commissioners in December pass a 2020 budget that included a tax hike of 2.38% — the first increase in county property taxes since 2005.

Walton said GTL provided about 150 tablets at no cost to the county for inmates to use from the privacy of their cells in 2019. Fees generated from inmates’ use of the tablets to rent books and movies from a limited library approved by prison officials, play video games and make phone calls were turned over to the county’s general operating fund recently, Walton said.

“Any time that we’re in lockdown, nobody can make a phone call,” Walton said of the wall-mounted telephones available for inmate use. “If you’ve got a tablet, you’ve got a tablet in your cell. For example, after lunchtime... they’re in their cells for two hours, which means nobody could make phone calls or do anything. Now, they’re making phone calls and they’re playing games and watching movies and doing all that stuff, so we’re getting that money additionally.”

Prison officials are exploring allowing expanding the available uses for the tablet to potentially include text messaging and video calling capabilities, but need to work out how to monitor such uses.

“We’re always looking for ways to bring additional money in to the county,” Walton said. “We’ve been looking to do text messaging over the tablets, where you’d be able to send a text to the inmate and they’d be able to respond back. Our hope there is it would cut down on the mail coming into the facility so we don’t have to worry about contraband coming in through the mail. But we’re still working on that.”

Walton said text messages would likely be run through a filter designed to catch and flag certain terms and phrases and prevent the message from making its way to the intended recipient until it’s been reviewed.

“You have like a dictionary, so if a (message) mentioned drugs, that text wouldn’t go through,” Walton said. “They’ve compiled these throughout the years that they’ve been doing them, so slang terms for any drugs, if anything came up, it would red flag it and it wouldn’t go through until somebody reviewed it.”

The prison board reorganized to start Monday’s meeting, electing new sheriff James Albert as prison board chairman. Commissioner Gina Cerilli, who has been a vocal critic of Walton in the past, was tabbed as vice chairwoman. County controller Jeffrey Balzer was selected as the prison board’s secretary.

In other business, the prison board following a lengthy executive session approved:

  • Hiring Amy Baker as assistant records supervisor, pending completion of required qualifications;
  • Accepting the resignations of probationary part-time corrections officers Robert Davis and Branden Lennert;
  • Accepting the resignation of full-time corrections officer Richard Newman, effective Jan. 13.

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