Reading and punishment

Let’s see, who’s an easy group to exploit? Oh I know: prisoners! Yeah, let’s exploit them, because we can.

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.

Win-win! The content is all free and the company gets to charge for it!

[T]he 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.

Seems fair, right?

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).”

Hey I have an idea, what about trying rehabilitation instead of exploitation?

Ok, I know, crazy idea.

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