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West Virginia Inmates Charged for Reading ‘Free’ Books on Tablets

A new policy that charges West Virginia inmates to read books on electronic tablets is stirring outrage.

At several West Virginia prisons, the incarcerated are getting “free” electronic tablets to read books, send emails, and communicate with their families, but 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 the books, reported Reason.

The charge happens even though the books all come from Project Gutenberg, a free online library of more than 60,000 texts in the public domain. This means reading a classic novel “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,” according to Reason.

The Appalachian Book Project reported last week that “people in WV prisons will be charged 5 cents/minute to access much of the tablet’s content. For now, a promotional discount brings the cost of reading e-books down to 3 cents/minute. Either way, it’s no way to read.”

The entire premise of Project Gutenberg is to provide people with access to books in the public domain for free through archiving older texts.

Although it looks like this use of their free archives may not violate their trademark, the Chief Executive and Director of Project Gutenberg, Dr. Gregory Newby, said in an email he found charging for reading through Internet fees “very sad.”

“The adoption of costly video-technology is part of a disturbing nation-wide trend: 74 percent of jails who have adopted video calls have subsequently banned in-person visitation,” tweeted Rebecca Kavanaugh, media director of The Appeal.

Kavanaugh continued, “There’s also been a troubling national trend to ban donations of used books to people who are incarcerated and to restrict book purchases to certain vendors that charge exorbitant prices and have limited censored selections.”

Over the past few years, there has been a rise in “prison profiteers who strike deals with state corrections officers to provide ‘free’ tablets to prisoners (these being the flimsiest, cheapest, least reliable hardware imaginable), and then profiting by charging exorbitant sums for prisoners to send emails” or video-conference with family, reported boingboing. 

The practice of the prison and jail telephone industries joining forces to take advantage of the captive market of incarcerated people and their families to charge fees has drawn extensive criticism.

Prison Policy Initiative recently decried the introduction of the electronic tablets.

“Eight states have recently signed contracts with prison telecom companies to provide tablet computers to incarcerated people – a sharp increase since we began analyzing these contracts in 2017,” said the organization.

The “free” tablets “charge users at every opportunity, including above-market prices for phone calls, video chats, and media,” said Prison Policy Initiative. “Even sending an email requires a paid ‘stamp.’ “