On its face, it’s a welcome proposition: people incarcerated in West Virginia prisons will be given access to electronic tablets, allowing them to read books and articles, listen to music, write emails, and send photos and video chat with their friends and family. But it will cost them: $0.03-$0.05 a minute if they want to crack open, say, The Bluest Eye or 1984. This, despite all the books being pulled from a free online library.
As Reason reports, those are the guidelines according to a 2019 contract between West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation (WVDCR) and Global Tel Link (GTL), the company providing the tablets:
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.
Of course, the WVDCR defended the tablet program, touting its ability to connect the incarcerated with educational materials and loved ones, as well as providing an incentive for good behavior. But as Katy Ryan, founder and educational coordinator for the Appalachian Prison Book Project, a nonprofit that offers free books and education to inmates, told Reason, the fee structure is blatantly exploitative.
“If you pause to think or reflect, that will cost you. If you want to reread a book, you will pay the entire cost again,” Ryan observed. “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 GTL contract is part of two “related and mutually enforcing” trends, David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, told The Root. The first is a well-documented hallmark of the American incarceration system: censorship of various books and publications. In the last year, one Georgia jail, a sheriff imposed a ban on all reading materials except religious texts like the Bible and the Quran. In North Carolina and Florida, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, a book that comprehensively exposes the racist roots of mass incarceration, was prohibited from state prisons. Washington state also, at one point, forbade outsiders from sending free books to people locked in its prisons—a policy they were forced to rescind after a backlash.
Fathi noted that these censored materials aren’t random—prisons are far more likely to ban reading that may be of interest to historically marginalized groups such as Africans, African Americans, LGBT people, and members of minority religious groups.
But the West Virginia case exemplifies another, more contemporary trend, Fathi says—“an attempt to monetize the most basic forms of human contact and to profit from prisoners and their families.”
This includes private companies charging “outrageous rates” for phone calls and video calls, then kicking back that money to the prison or jail agency that awarded the contract, Fathi says. Arizona even began charging inmates and their families a one-time fee for in-person visits. This, despite the fact that the American prison population is primarily composed of the poorest and most disempowered people in the U.S.—and the effect of imprisonment effectively depresses them, economically and socially, even further.
One could very well argue that for no other population in the country is information more important than it is to persons behind bars. And while the monetization of the prison system has been decades in the making, as technology plays a more deeply entrenched role in our daily lives, so too will prisons rush to find new ways to restrict and monetize the information inmates receive. Fathi referenced California’s attempt to ban the incarcerated from receiving any information printed from the internet (this included verses from religious texts). In Arizona, the state legislature at one point made it a crime for any prisoner to have his or her name on the internet—a ludicrous law that was successfully challenged by the ACLU.
But Fathi and other civil liberties and prisoners’ rights advocates say these draconian restrictions are deeply tied to America’s punitive approach to incarceration—an approach which differs greatly from that of our Western counterparts—that seeks to further isolate and marginalize those who become incarcerated.
“It views prisoners as people with really no rights that anyone else is bound to respect,” Fathi says. “And it views them as almost a subhuman species that is somehow and essentially different from and inferior to everyone else.”
Not only is this detrimental to the incarcerated and their families, it is “suicidal” for society itself, Fathi says.
Restricting information and access to the outside world is “the most counterproductive thing you could possibly do from a public safety and crime prevention perspective,” says Fathi, citing research showing that prisoners who maintain close contact with their families during incarceration are more likely to readjust successfully to society. It is a profoundly difficult transition for many, and one that 95 percent of all prisoners will have to face.
“When we cut off prisoners from the outside world, we not only hurt them,” Fathi continues. “We not only their loved ones and others in the outside world. We hurt ourselves as a society because we are knowingly decreasing their chances of successful reentry, and of living productive and law-abiding lives after they get out.”
In a statement to Reason, a WVDCR spokesperson responded that no inmates were required to use the tablets, and that a 5 percent commission would go back to funding “paying for cable TV and hosting open house visitation events for families” for those who are incarcerated. But as Fathi points out, the statement doesn’t at all address one of the most troubling facets of the prison contract: that GTL is profiting off a free e-book service, making otherwise free materials unavailable to a majority of its prisoners. In this way, the $0.03 fee for reading a free book is not just representative of America’s treatment of the incarcerated, but of how the system itself is currently designed to operate.
Says Fathi: “When you pair that profit motive with a disempowered, impoverished and literally captive group of people, that is a recipe for exploitation and abuse. And that seems to be what’s happening in West Virginia right now.”