Exploiting Prisoners: W. Virginia Inmates Will Be Charged $3 An Hour To Read E-Books That Are Free Online

Exploiting Prisoners: W. Virginia Inmates Will Be Charged $3 An Hour To Read E-Books That Are Free Online

prison tablets
Hyped as “free,” the electronic multimedia prison tablets are anything but. Inmates have to pay to use them to communicate with family and read e-books that are free online. Photo: Impact Sports Prison Ministry

People incarcerated in 10 West Virginia prisons will soon be charged $3 an hour to read e-books on prison tablets and $15 an hour for video visitation with their families thanks to a contract between the government and an inmate calling company.

Under a 2019 contract with the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, a Virginia company called Global Tel Link is providing electronic multimedia tablets to 10 West Virginia prisons, according to a report by Reason.com.

The tablets, hyped as “free”, are anything but. Inmates have to pay to use them to send emails, communicate with family members and read books that are free on the internet.

Global Tel Link provides inmate calling services. The company’s CEO is Brian D. Oliver. By 2015, Global Tel Link controlled 50 percent of the $1.2 billion inmate calling services telecommunications industry, Huffington Post reported.

Inmates will be charged to read books — books that are free for all users from Project Gutenberg, a free online library of more than 60,000 texts in the public domain.

Wages in West Virginia prisons range between $0.04 and $0.58 an hour, according to a 2017 estimate by the Prison Policy Initiative.

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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 Appalachian Prison Book Project reported.

“The tablets scheme is turning into a ruthless profit industry, several participants in an NCHEP panel have suggested on Twitter,” Didi Rankovic wrote in a blog for ReclaimTheNet.org.

The cost of reading a single ebook could reach $25, according to the nonprofit Books for Prisoners. While the devices (with no internet access) are given to inmates free of charge, the companies who provide them make money not only on ebooks but also charge “above-market prices for phone calls, video chats, and media,” the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative reported in March.

The fee structure is exploitative, according to the Appalachian Prison Book Project, a nonprofit that offers free books and education to inmates.

“If you pause to think or reflect, that will cost you,” said 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.”

The tablets aren’t supposed to replace regular books, but similar policies have led to price-gouging and restrictions on book donations in other states, according to Reason.com.

In a statement to Reason.com, the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation said inmates do not have to use the tablets and it is not restricting book donations or purchases of regular print books.

However, in other parts of the country prisons have restricted book donations, forcing inmates to buy books through pre-approved vendors or use tablets provided by private contractors like Global Tel Link and JPay.

“The stated rationale for limiting or banning both in-person visitation and books is the smuggling of contraband,” Rebecca J. Kavanagh tweeted. “But overwhelmingly contraband is smuggled into jails and prisons by staff.” Kavanagh is a criminal defense lawyer and former public defender who represented indigent clients.

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Although the practice of making inmates pay to and communicate on tablets is not new, it shocked and surprised some social media users so much that they found it hard to believe.

“If this is true it is beyond outrageous. Rehabilitation????” racial wealth disparity expert Sandy Darity tweeted.

“This is one of the most disgusting things I have ever heard. Charging a prisoner to read a book? Cancelling in-person visits? This is the slavery to prison pipeline,” another tweeted.

Here are more comments on Twitter:

“Just like the old time company stores in the same area. ‘I owe my soul to the company store.'”

“This is basically the state saying that they don’t want these #prisoners reading just like the slavemasters. This is separation of families. Where is the outrage? How is this rehabilitation? They are #chattel.”