MANSFIELD -- Richland County Jail inmates will soon have access to electronic tablets, through a no-cost-to-the-county program that jailers hope will also stop illegal drugs coming into the facility via mail.
County commissioners voted Tuesday to approve a contract with Securus Technologies that will provide 75 tablets, each a little smaller than an iPad, for use by jail inmates.
Sheriff's Dept. Capt. Chris Blunk, who recommended the tablet program, said inmates can rent a tablet for their own usage for $5 per month or use tablets that will be shared within the jail's housing units at no charge.
The tablet program will cost the county nothing, Blunk said.
Blunk, the county jail administrator, said inmates will receive personal mail via the tablets, save for legal mail from attorneys or the courts. He said this will help alleviate the sophisticated ways inmates are now obtaining drugs through the mail.
In addition to mail, which will be scanned in by an out-of-state company and uploaded to the inmates' accounts, the prisoners will have access to other materials on their tablets, including educational/GED programs, religious programming, law library resources, e-books, movies, etc.
Blunk said corrections officers will control all of the material made available to inmates on the tablets. He also told commissioners no additional jail staff will be needed to implement the program.
Commissioner Darrell Banks said he was "skeptical" of the program, but that he had faith in the judgement of Blunk and Sheriff Steve Sheldon, who also supports the tablets.
Banks asked Blunk about the possibility some inmates could use the tablets as weapons in an assault on other prisoners or jail staff.
Blunk pointed out inmates have access to other, larger items that could be used as weapons, including mops and hard, plastic food trays. He said the tablets should be received by the county in about a month.
Banks and fellow Commissioner Tony Vero voted in favor of the tablets after pointing out the contract could be cancelled "for cause" at any time. Commissioner Marilyn John had left the meeting by then to attend another meeting elsewhere related to the U.S. Census Bureau count.
In other action Tuesday, commissioners voted 3-0 to approve a financial plan refunding some long-term bonds and replacing them with lower-interest notes. The plan will save the county about $525,000 in interest over the next 17 years. The bonds were initially sold in 2011 and 2013 related to the new county jail.
Commissioners, who initially discussed the idea in June, approved the plan after meeting again with Joseph Robertson, managing director of Hilltop Securities. His company, the nation's second-largest financial advisory firm, handles the underwriting on the county's debt.
Interest rates have consistently fallen during the last decade and Robertson said many governmental entities have achieved savings by refunding bonds issued at higher rates of interest and replacing them at lower rates. The county currently pays $1.5 million in annual debt payments related to these bonds.
Commissioners could, in the future, reduce that amount due to the lower interest rates and increase the amount of money available in the general fund.
Also on Tuesday, commissioners approved seeking bids for the food service that supplies the county jail, Community Alternative Center and Juvenile Detention facility in 2020. Aramark currently has the contract. The county will spend almost $400,000 on food in the county jail, alone, in 2019.