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Texas inmates have clear choice in typewriters
[June 15, 2011]

Texas inmates have clear choice in typewriters

Jun 15, 2011 (The Dallas Morning News - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- For most Americans, that clunky, old-fashioned throwback that pounds out words on paper with its signature clackety-clack has faded into nostalgia along with the caboose and the rotary phone.

But typewriter sales remain brisk to one niche consumer: prison inmates.

"It's a good business for us," said general manager Ed Michael of Swintec Corp. of New Jersey.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice sells several hundred Swintec typewriters a year to convicts, said Jason Clark, public information officer. The machines are sold through the prison commissary for $225.

But the TDCJ typewriter isn't the familiar black chunk of metal. Prison models are transparent, or as Swintec bills them, "Clearly, the smart choice." Swintec developed the transparent typewriter for inmate use nine years ago.

The transparent typewriter is popular with prisons because it shows "all the inner workings on the machine," Michael explained.

"That allows the prison guard to search the machine without having to take it apart because prisoners are known to hide contraband in the most unusual places," he said.

The ribbon cassettes also are transparent, Michael said.

Inmates use the machines to churn out legal filings for their court cases and to write long letters to friends, family, pen pals and reporters. The commissary also offers ribbons, correction tape and paper.

Texas inmates have limited access to pay phones and no access to computers.

"We didn't anticipate the niche of the corrections [business]," Michael said, but the company now sells to corrections departments in more than 40 states.

The company offers nine different clear models. Some states allow inmates to use machines with the ability to retain limited amounts of information.

Texas used to allow typewriters with memory capacity, Clark said, but decided to carry a different model because of security issues. "It was a concern that messages could be stored onto that memory and be trafficked between inmates," Clark said.

But the Texas model does include a "paper bail" to hold the paper down while typing, which the Michigan model does not. Michael said he thought Michigan officials were "concerned about every mobile item," that might be removed and used for a different purpose.

Clark said correctional officers are aware that inmates try to "take things off of it. There's a metal bar that goes through there that many times they'll try to pull out and make a shank out of or take some of the plastic pieces and try to alter those in some way to make them a weapon." Texas inmates generally aren't paid for their work, but family and friends can deposit money in their account to buy a typewriter or other items such as food or personal hygiene products.

The transparent typewriter is available to the general public through the company's website, Michael said. Though it was designed for prison use, residents of the free world sometimes "buy it because it's pretty," Michael said.

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