You don’t have to be bored ever again, since your cheap or expensive tablet can literally show you the world at any time – nature shows, YouTube videos of people visiting exotic locations and immersing themselves into the local lifestyle and culture, or professors giving fascinating lectures. Just open an app and press play.
But, not everyone has that freedom and access to the world’s information… And obviously we’re talking about prisoners. What sort of consumer tech do they get to use?
Why? Well, for many reasons, a big one being – those devices are not transparent. A sneaky prisoner could disassemble them and store contraband inside.
But, as always – if there’s demand, someone will take advantage of it, and that’s where companies you’ve never heard of, who make clear tech for prisoners, come in.
Let’s look at the devices they make, for people in jail to use, and… Be glad we have access to “real” tablets, media players and phones, because the prison-issue ones are, as you might expect, very underwhelming.
The most popular tablets made for prisoners – JP5s and JP5mini
I hear you out there – you don’t like the fact that phones don’t have headphone jacks now, so you were forced to buy premium wireless headphones. Well, look at the earbuds sticking out of those tablets and count your blessings.
If you’ve ever bought a Chinese no-brand MP3 player in the early 2000s, you know what those sound like – just garbled, ear-piercing highs, no mids, no bass.
But hey, why would those two clear tablets even come with earbuds? Great question – because these tablets do not have speakers.
Prisons don’t want inmates blasting music and disturbing others, so most tech made specifically for use on the inside requires the use of earbuds or headphones. Or if a device actually has a speaker, it’s a very, very underpowered (quiet) one. Makes sense.
These transparent tablets are obviously not going to be running the latest iPadOS, but are on an old version of Android, as you might have already guessed. It’s hard to find detailed intel on rather obscure devices like them, especially since their own manufacturers don’t disclose much, but we can reasonably expect either Android 4 or 5 by the looks of things. No software updates! Can’t complain about it either.
Because, as old as, say, Android 4 is, 12 years later it’s still very usable. And all jokes aside, those tablets can be a fantastic gift to someone in jail. They have a music app, for listening to some tunes, or even better – an FM radio app, which the earbuds likely serve as an antenna for. That’s “even better”, because in this case someone doesn’t need to preload music onto the tablet before it enters a prison cell – the radio is always current and easily accessible.
Also, a tablet like this would be immensely valuable as an e-reader. Even with its puny 16GB of storage (for the smaller JP5 mini tablet, the bigger one has 32GB) you can cram thousands of e-books on it, as they’re generally small files. That’s potentially years of entertainment.
There’s also a notepad app, a basic calculator, and something most of us probably take for granted – a calendar app. You can even read the news on it, if you’re lucky enough to actually have Wi-Fi in prison! Don’t be hoping for an actual web browser or YouTube, though. No social media apps like Instagram either. Or any cameras for taking selfies to post on those.
Are you waiting for your Steam Deck? Well, this is what prisoners get
We’re pretty fortunate that Valve can afford to sell the Steam Deck at a loss, as we get pretty affordable prices on what is essentially a portable gaming PC. Obviously Valve knows it’ll make up for those losses by having more people buying games from its platform.Doesn’t matter, the point is – the Steam Deck is pretty cool. Triple-A gaming at your fingertips; the best of the best cutting-edge video games at your disposal. And you can play them anywhere!
But let’s step away from all that talk about freedom and cutting-edge gaming, to talk about what portable gaming consoles prisoners are allowed to order in.
What you’re seeing above is the Clear Tunes HG-503, a prison-issued portable gaming console, which is claimed by some outlets to be the best-selling console in prison even to this day.
Unsurprisingly, it’s a clear plastic device that runs on batteries and comes with some super underwhelming built-in minigames. You won’t be playing Grand Theft Auto V or even Sonic The Hedgehog 2 on this baby. No sane manufacturer would preload this with illegal game ROMs and ship it off to a state correctional facility, right?
The games on this console appear to have been made for it, or for earlier variations of it (which were “normal” and meant for the outside world, not just prisoners).
And, these games are indeed very basic time-killers that likely won’t hold the attention of a grown adult for long, but are still probably better than nothing. They’re looking as if they were made in the early 90s, the kind of games you’ll see on a SEGA Genesis or GameGear. But there are plenty of them, though – shoot ’em ups, racing games, platformers, basic sudoku and card games… Lots to choose from, over 40 opportunities for disappointment!
Cassette players, CD players and radios for prison inmates
You may have seen music CDs and cassette tapes being sold even these days in 2022, and there’s a reason for it, or shall I say there’s still a market for those formats.
So lots of modern music makers release their music on vinyl, CD and even cassette tapes, and not just for hipsters – the latter two are also still enjoyed by prisoners.
What you’re seeing above is the Clear Tech Retro CD Player sold by Urban Outfitters – a transparent music CD player for a very low price that reflects its quality. The same store also used to sell something I personally found more interesting – a transparent cassette player that was once allegedly pretty popular in prisons, but it doesn’t anymore. Maybe cassette tapes are finally dying out even in jail? Still, we can see what the transparent cassette player looks like below:
Photo credit: Techmoan
While this cassette player does have an actual speaker, although an extremely quiet one, which as we mentioned is kind of mandatory, the CD player does not. Realistically, both of those audio players are meant to be used with headphones, pretty much like everything else we already looked at. But here’s something else that looks pretty cool – this transparent radio:
This one is pretty bulky for what we see is actually inside, but likely offers way better battery life, thanks to the chonkier batteries it uses, and is the easiest, most convenient, and cheapest device you can give a prisoner for some entertainment. No need to buy CDs or hunt for cassette tapes, it’s just a radio.
It even has a huge speaker! What a rarity, right? Don’t be fooled though, you really need to press that baby to your ear to hear anything, because, again – those devices are built to be as unobtrusive to others as possible. You’ll need some earbuds yet again, in order to hear what the current popular songs are, and lose what’s left of your faith in humanity.
A popular prison phone! Nope, not a smartphone
This is not a prison-issued device, nor a device inmates are even meant to own and use. It’s the Zanco Tiny t1, possibly the world’s smallest dumbphone. Similarly-sized phones from other brands exist too, though, and are likely also being… well, smuggled in prisons as we speak.
Because yes, you’re not actually allowed to have a phone in prison – phones are considered contraband. So, you can probably guess the questionable ways tiny phones like this Zanco make it inside.
We don’t need to get into those details, but let’s look at the specs of this tiny bad boy. It comes with a surprisingly generous 64GB of storage, an OLED (how premium, watch out, Samsung!) 64-by-32-pixels display, Bluetooth support, and… a voice changer.
Yes, Zanco sure knows its audience, this tiny phone might not offer much in terms of features, but somehow a voice changer with over 13 voice options made it.
You can, theoretically, for real, have someone inside a prison cell call you from this, sounding like Wall-E. What a time to be alive!
Obviously this tiny phone is also capable of receiving messages and making phone calls, which, again, is illegal, in case you’re in prison for doing something illegal, and are looking for inventive new ways to proceed with this trend.
Since its tiny 200 mAh battery can last 3 days at best on a single charge, one has to wonder where an inmate would charge it via its micro USB port afterwards. Maybe it’s a throwaway? It only costs 50 bucks after all.
So there we have it, a look into the fascinating world of prison tech. The tech products you’re allowed to have on the inside are clear, pretty unimpressive, but still better than absolutely nothing.
Would you trade your iPad mini 6 for the JP5mini? Or would you trade your Steam Deck for a Clear Tunes HG-503? Or your iPhone for a Zanco Tiny t1? Don’t answer that. Rhetorical questions.
But do share your thoughts on those devices! Are you surprised, or maybe even impressed that they exist? Would you be able to survive with any of them on a desert island? Or… perhaps more realistically – a concrete-block room with metal bars for a door?