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Free tablet program for San Francisco County Jail inmates opens new doors

Free tablet program for San Francisco County Jail inmates opens new doors
Free tablet program for San Francisco County Jail inmates opens new doors 03:36

SAN FRANCISCO -- The sheriff's department in San Francisco has rolled out a first-of-its-kind program that gives county jail inmates access to computer tablets.

While tablets are common in jails across the country, this new program is making the devices free to use for all inmates, who are unlocking new tools for their rehabilitation. 

SF County Jail free tablet program
SF County Jail free tablet program CBS

David Thornton has been serving time at the San Francisco County Jail for nearly two years. His time changed three months ago when the jail rolled out the pilot program that provides each inmate with a tablet that has entertainment options and virtual resources. 

"It has a lot of information; a lot of positive information to to better you if you're willing to better yourself. And it's free," Thornton told CBS News Bay Area. 

The tablets are more than just a tool to pass the time and boost morale. Days into receiving the tablet, Thornton stumbled upon the LexisNexis app, opening a database of legal knowledge. 

"LexisNexis man, that's my favorite. That's my favorite app," he said as he clicked to open the program. "In court, they say a lot about mens the action of the crime. I didn't know any of this before. And as I went through it and I started breaking the words down in order to dictionary, now I understand what I'm reading and what they're saying in the courtroom. So I'm not just sitting here like, 'Oh, yeah, sure.'"

He's using it to educate himself on his own case and follow along in court as he faces two life sentences if convicted. But Thornton says the information the tablet has provided is helping him and his lawyer defend his case.

"I've been preparing for the preliminary hearing for a while and it's been really stressful. It's been stressful because again my life is on the line," said Thornton. 

He's not keeping the new wealth of knowledge to himself. Each day as he learns new legal theories, he shares with other inmates who may find it useful. 

"In the process of me doing that, I also find information that helps other people with their cases; things that don't seem right or things where laws were bent to grab people or what have you," Thornton explained. "So it's good to see people go home -- when they were looking at years or possibly not going home -- it's good to see people reunite with their family."

Every inmate is given a tablet for free. There is no commissary charge, no subscription fees, and no strings attached other than good behavior. 

Mayor London Breed has pledged $500,000 annually to fund 1,400 tablets. San Francisco contracted Santa Cruz-based company Nucleos to launch the program. 

Aside from legal assistance, it's also boosted mental health for inmates, giving many a way to stay up to date on pop culture, current events and even television shows to watch along with their friends and families. 

Inmates aren't the only ones who see the benefits. 

Lt. Linda Bui has worked at the jail since before the program launched. She says she's seen an improvement in mental health across the jail.

Lt. Bui says not having to pay for use of the tablet, unlike other tablet programs in jails, lifts a longstanding burden for families and friends who often finance a loved one's accessibility behind bars. 

"A lot of the people who are in jail are coming from low-income families prior to this. So essentially, if we have a monetary tablet system, we're going to be penalizing their family and friends. Because who's going to be putting the money on their books right to get to pay for content? It's going to be their family and friends," Bui told CBS News Bay Area. 

Thornton says the program has not only changed his path behind bars, but he hopes to continue using his paralegal skills on the outside. 

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