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A hand holding a gavel appears from a prison tablet
Illustration by Teresa Tauchi (Source: iStock)

Over the past few years, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has unrolled an electronic tablet program for inmates. For the most part, the technology has been beneficial to the tens of thousands of people inside the Texas prison system.

The tablets have helped us access resources that were not easily available in the past, including podcasts, music, movies, games, electronic books, and educational and language-learning apps. The tablets help us learn and relax.

But there’s at least one way that the tablets are dangerous: the ease of access to information that is probably better left private — including the convictions that landed us in prison.

Through an app called Law Library, incarcerated Texans can look up case identifiers such as names or inmate IDs. 

This could put inmates in harm’s way.

To fully understand the risk, it’s best to imagine that you are in prison.

You have just arrived and are settling into your cell. For the next three months, you work your prison job, make acquaintances and stay out of trouble. Then one day you go to the commissary — a prison general store where inmates can purchase hygiene products, food and medication — and someone asks you for something you bought. You tell them “no.” That upsets the inmate, who now realizes they can't manipulate you into buying certain things, a common occurrence inside.

So now that inmate is angry with you. And they know your name, and there are a number of ways they can discover your TDCJ identification number. With this information they can now get on their tablet and look up the crime you were convicted of through the Law Library app.

Let's say you were convicted of child endangerment. Then let’s say that the inmate who looked you up has gone around your dorm, outing you. And let’s say that the person who lives next to you is in prison for harming someone who endangered a child. That means that the person living next to you is in prison for hurting someone who committed the same crime as you. They could be more inclined to harass or hurt you because they have a personal connection to your crime. And in general, in prison, people who commit such crimes as child abuse face the most danger from other incarcerated people.

You can see how this information can be dangerous when spread widely. I have seen people, and know other people, who have been harassed, bullied, abused and forced to fight to protect themselves because their crime was disclosed to people in their prison unit or dorm.

Now, theoretically there are ways for people to be protected in situations like this. Protective custody confinement, where someone is in a prison cell by themselves and segregated from the general population, is one such way. But there are downsides to that, like not having a cellmate and drastically decreased social opportunities.

Before tablets were introduced to my prison, it was possible to look up someone’s crime, but it was much more challenging and time-consuming. In the past, inmates generally looked up court cases as a way to help themselves or others appeal their cases.

Back then, you had to drop a request to go to the law library, get it approved by prison staff and actually visit the library in person to physically look up a case. And most inmates don't know how to look up case law, so this action was restricted to a much smaller number of people. Most inmates are not going to drop a request to go sit in the law library for hours trying to learn how to look up the crimes of other inmates.

But with the Law Library app, it's quick and easy to find anyone’s case — and people are using it as a weapon. Several inmates I know have experienced physical abuse because someone looked up their crime and decided they needed to be punished for it. This abuse isn't part of the punishment for their conviction and it certainly has no basis in rehabilitation.

I don't believe TDCJ set out to intentionally place inmates at risk when they introduced tablets. There are plenty of problems in Texas prisons — some very dangerous and deadly, as I wrote about recently — but I think this is an oversight on their part. 

When this ability isn’t abused, it can lead to good outcomes. We can research court cases, help our own appeals or those of others, and potentially gain freedom earlier than expected.

But there needs to be a system of checks and balances to stop people from using the Law Library app for nefarious reasons. Perhaps there is a way they could put restrictions on searching the crimes of people who live in your prison.

If an inmate can prove that they need to research the court case of someone in their prison to help their own appeal — or a friend’s appeal — then they should be allowed to do so. But if they can’t prove that they are looking up someone’s court case and crime, for a constructive purpose, then they should not be allowed to see that information.

TDCJ must find a system that proactively protects our conviction information. Otherwise, the best we are doing is reacting to the problem. Most of the time officials won't act on reports inmates make until after something has actually happened. On the rare occasions when they do, they will generally transfer an inmate to a different facility.

But even that won’t stop the problem. These tablets will still be at the next prison that inmate is sent to. A new cycle begins. They are at a new location, but with the same opportunity for sensitive information to be accessed, and the same opportunity for harm.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Khaȧliq Shakur is a trans writer incarcerated in Texas.