BEDFORD - As police in Blair County gather evidence against an inmate accused of illegally accessing email in jail, their counterparts in Bedford County are taking a different tack: They're willingly giving prisoners access.
A new online system, approved Tuesday by the county commissioners, is set to allow limited email access while streamlining the county jail's commissary system, saving money and preventing the sort of embezzlement that allegedly cost the county $50,000 during the past five years.
"It's bringing us up to speed with current technology," Commissioner Chairman Kirt Morris said Tuesday. "There's Internet now, but they [prisoners] don't have access to it."
In the coming months, commissary contractor Oasis Management Systems Inc. will install ATM-style kiosks throughout the Bedford County Correctional Facility, the commissioners and Warden David Kessling said.
Prisoners can use the kiosks to store money after their arrests, and relatives can use them to deposit cash for use at the jail commissary, a store where inmates buy food and toiletries.
The system will enable prisoners to send email for a 50-cent fee, as well, the commissioners said. Inmates can access kiosks on their cell blocks. Word filters will flag suspicious messages for review by jail staff, Kessling said.
As with paper mail, "We have the ability to read them if needed. But to go through every one ... you'd need more staff to do that," he said.
Online messaging isn't uncommon at jails and prisons nationwide. JPay, a service that allows relatives to send messages and money, lists dozens of Pennsylvania state facilities and a handful of county jails as participants on its website.
The Oasis system doesn't allow inmates to use the Internet at large, Morris stressed. They'll access a closed system that doesn't immediately send messages past jail walls, he said, and they can't visit websites.
"They're not signing into Gmail or Yahoo mail, no, no, no," he said.
Kessling said the commissioners first pressed for a new kiosk system after August, when then-secretary Sheila Suter was arrested for allegedly embezzling $50,000 in cash deposited by newly booked prisoners. The prisoners' funds were replenished from an official account, police said, making Bedford County the victim.
Under the new system, prisoners' deposits will be logged electronically, Kessling said, making theft less likely. When an inmate wants to buy an item from the commissary - a toothbrush or a bag of potato chips, for example - he can deduct it directly from his account balance.
The deal will mean more money for the jail, Kessling said, as the cut of commissary purchases normally turned over to the county is set for a slight increase under the new Oasis contract. Under the seven-year contract, Oasis will install the kiosks without charge; the county must pay for Internet service and new wiring, Kessling said.
The money saved through streamlined commissary sales will go toward prisoner education programs, he said.
Neither Kessling nor the commissioners expressed concerns that the email system could pose a security risk.
The Blair County incidents - in which prisoner Adam Christopher Hardin allegedly found a way around computer restrictions to send threats to local news outlets - were a bizarre rarity, Kessling said, and the restrictions set for Bedford would make email no more dangerous than paper mail.
"You know, technology changes," he said. "Other facilities have this ability."
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.