When I had previously reported on US prisons restricting sources of books (or out right banning books altogether) I justified the practice by pointing out the how books can be used to smuggle drugs into prisons.
There is no way to justify what the state of West Virginia is doing.
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.
The WVDCR says the tablets provide access to educational materials, incentives for good behavior, and an easy way to stay in touch with loved ones. But the 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, detailed by Appalachian Prison Book Project, 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.
I am speechless.