Inmates at several West Virginia prisons are getting free electronic tablets to read books, send emails, and communicate with their families—but there's a catch.
Any inmates looking to read Moby Dick may find that it will cost them far more than it would have if they'd simply gotten a mass market paperback, because the tablets charge readers by the minute.
Under a 2019 contract between the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation (WVDCR) and Global Tel Link (GTL), the company that is providing electronic multimedia tablets to 10 West Virginia prisons, inmates will be charged 3 cents a minute to read books, even though the books all come from Project Gutenberg, a free online library of more than 60,000 texts in the public domain.
The WVDCR says the tablets provide access to educational materials, incentives for good behavior, and an easy way to stay in touch with loved ones. But the Appalachian Prison Book Project, a nonprofit that offers free books and education to inmates, says the fee structure is exploitative.
"If you pause to think or reflect, that will cost you," says Katy Ryan, the group's founder and educational coordinator. "If you want to reread a book, you will pay the entire cost again. This is about generating revenue for the state and profit for the industry. Tablets under non-predatory terms could be a very good thing inside prisons. GTL does not provide that."
According to the contract, using the tablets will cost $0.05 per minute (currently discounted to $0.03) to read books, listen to music, or play games; $0.25 per minute for video visitations; $0.25 per written message; and $0.50 to send a photo with a message.
The Prison Policy Initiative estimated in 2017 that wages in West Virginia prisons range between $0.04 and $0.58 an hour.
According to the contract, the WVDCR will also receive a 5 percent commission on gross revenue from the tablets.
In a statement to Reason, a WVDCR spokesperson noted that no inmates are being forced to use the tablets. In addition, the 5 percent commission will go toward a fund at each prison that inmates "use for such things as paying for cable TV and hosting open house visitation events for families." And the agency is not restricting purchases or donations of regular print books.
That last item is important, and hopefully it will remain true. There's been a troubling trend in other parts of the country of prisons restricting book donations and forcing inmates to purchase books through pre-approved vendors or to use electronic tablets provided by private contractors like GTL and JPay.
Earlier this year, Book Riot reported that numerous Ohio prisons were banning book donations by groups like Appalachian Prison Book Project. Amid media scrutiny, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) announced it would lift the bans for third-party book donations. But family members are still banned from sending print material. In at least one Ohio prison, family members must put money into the inmate's account so they can order it themselves. JPay, which handles money transfers for the Ohio prison system, takes a cut on all deposits. The director of the ODRC is the former general manager of JPay.
Pennsylvania, Washington, and three prisons in New York all attempted similar bans on donations of used books to inmates, then relented under citizen pressure. The prisons cited security concerns over contraband, but news investigations showed there was little actual evidence of smuggling via donated dictionaries.
Last year, after Florida inked a new contract with JPay to provide multimedia tablets to inmates, inmates were forced to return MP3 players they had purchased through the state's previous provider, losing all the tracks they had purchased as well.
Pennsylvania also pays a private contractor $4 million a year for digitized mail services, where letters to inmates are scanned and sent to inmates as black and white photocopies while the original letters are destroyed.
In 2017, the WVDCR instituted a policy barring inmates from receiving original mail.
Although the books on Project Gutenberg are all free, there is little the organization can do to stop GTL and the WVDCR from charging for access to the tablets.
"It's all very sad," Greg Newby, CEO of the Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation, wrote in an email to the Appalachian Prison Book Project. "From the trademark license of Project Gutenberg eBooks, I don't see leverage to do anything about it. I'm glad that prisoners seem to have less expensive access to PG eBooks than to other content, but would greatly prefer if it was all free (and other reforms to the exploitation of prisoners)."
GTL did not immediately respond to a request for comment.