Bergen County, NJ, jail inmates who want to brush up on their legal defense online can do so now from their cells, a move that officials say is a first nationwide, says The Record of Hackensack, NJ. Jail officials have begun rolling out the first batch of 80 laptops – each about the size and heft of a large hardcover novel – to some of the 1,000 inmates who occupy the near-capacity lockup. About $100,000 has been spent so far from an account funded by profits from items purchased from inmates, such as toothpaste and candy bars, to buy the $1,200 notebooks and install wireless connections.
The primary reason for the move is safety. “There’s a risk each time you open a cell door,” said Bergen Sheriff Leo McGuire, “and our library was getting too busy.” Before, inmates who wanted to use the Westlaw research service had to file into the jail’s law library, where 12 computers are crammed into the same space as guards and stacks of legal texts. “We should remember that in most cases, the individuals [in jails] aren’t guilty, so they’re still on trial,” said Edward Barocas of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “They should be afforded their research time, no matter how they get it.” Fred Wilson of the National Sheriffs Association said it was the first he had ever heard of such a move. “Knowing the sheriff, he’s completely investigated any dangers in giving prisoners those pieces of equipment,” Wilson said. “I think it’s interesting. It’s an innovative idea.”