Imagine being given access to something labeled “free,” but there’s a charge to use it. Apparently, that has been happening to inmates at a number of West Virginia prisons. According to Reason.com, inmates have been receiving free electronic tablets to read, send emails, and communicate with their families. However, due to a contract between the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation and Global Tel Link, inmates will be charged to utilize these not-so-free tablets. It’s worth noting that the books come from Project Gutenberg, which is a free online library.
The WVDCR claims that the tablets serve several purposes for the prison inmates – “access to educational materials, incentives for good behavior, and an easy way to stay in touch with loved ones.” The Appalachian Prison Book Project, a non-profit organization that provides free books and education to inmates, disagrees with charging to use the tablets and called the prison’s actions “exploitation.”
The Appalachian Prison Book Project listed the costs associated with using the tablet, per the contract. Inmates will have to pay $0.05 per minute to read books, listen to music, or play games – the cost is currently discounted, $0.25 per minute for video visitations, $0.25 per written message, and $0.50 to send a photo with a message. The WVDCR will also receive a five percent commission on gross revenue from the tablets, according to the contract.
Perhaps, the next question would be, how are inmates able to afford these per-minute costs? The Prison Policy Initiative estimated in 2017 that prison wages in West Virginia range between $0.04 and $0.58 an hour. Doing quick mental math, an inmate making $0.20 an hour would have to work four hours just to listen to a four-minute song.
A spokesperson for WVDCR said in a statement to Reason.com that the inmates are not being forced to use the tablets. Also, the five percent commission will be allocated to a fund at each prison that inmates “use for such things as paying for cable TV and hosting open house visitation events for families.”
The agency will not be placing restrictions on purchases or donations of regular print books, which has happened at prisons in other states. Book Riot reported that a number of Ohio prisons were banning book donations from organizations like the Appalachian Prison Book Project. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction later announced a lift on the ban following much warranted scrutiny. Pennsylvania, Washington, and three prisons in New York attempted to enforce similar bans as well, but did not follow through after feeling pressure from citizens.
The site adds that while the Project Gutenberg books are free, the organization has very little control over West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation and Global Tel Link charging inmates to use their “free” tablets.