In an age of disappearing prison libraries, jail profiteers provide "free" crapgadget tablets that charge prisoners by the minute to read Project Gutenberg ebooks

The past couple years has seen a rise in prison profiteers who strike deals with state corrections departments 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 (selling "digital postage stamps" that have to be affixed to each "page" of email), videoconference with family members, and provide media, charging prisoners for music that they lose every time a prison changes suppliers.

At the same time, these companies lobby prisons to eliminate in-person visits, paper mail, and even libraries in the name of safety, contraband interdiction, and cost-savings. This replaces the prison-administered systems that encourage rehabilitation and smooth re-entry with private systems designed to extract large sums from prisoners' families. As bad as prison-administered systems are, the private systems can be worse -- and when you combine them, you get the worst of both worlds: prisoners who violate the vendors' terms of service get sent to solitary.

A recent presentation by Katy Ryan from the Appalachian Book Project describes in gruesome detail how this affects in-prison reading. In West Virginia, a company called Global Tel Link has the contract to provide prisoners in ten prisons with "free" tablets, for which they charge $0.05/minute for reading ebooks, primarily drawn from Project Gutenberg, a free online service of volunteer-produced, public domain and CC-licensed ebooks.

Not only does this deprive prisoners of more recent titles, including "how-to guides (carpentry, starting a business, repairing small engines, etc.), contemporary fiction, popular mysteries and sci-fi, African American literature, Native studies, recent autobiographies" -- it also makes prison reading fantastically expensive: they estimate that a quick read of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four would clock in at $19.80, while a used paperback would cost the prisoner less than a dollar (and a copy checked out of the prison library would be free).

The prison system receives a 5% kickback on the revenues from this program (GTL also charges prisoners $0.25/min for videoconferencing, $0.25/message for IM, and $0.50 for every photo and $1.00 for every video sent to prisoners). GTL's contract allows it to raise prices at its sole discretion, and to recoup any shortfalls from its expected minimum profits by billing the state department of corrections.

Marketing for GTL tablets paints a picture of a benevolent collaboration between two parties working in the best interests of both the public and the incarcerated. GTL tablets are “provided” to incarcerated people free of charge and “at no cost to the taxpayers.” Tablets are “designed for correctional settings” and include sophisticated security features while offering a range of “free apps” as well as the ability to purchase additional apps.

A press release highlights the wide range of features that offer unprecedented access to the world beyond bars—educational materials, pathways to electronically file grievances, email, video chat, messaging services, audiobooks, music, games, and e-books.

Here’s the breakdown of costs:

* Accessing content, which includes “music, games, electronic messaging, eBooks,” costs $0.05 per minute.

* Video visitation features cost $0.25 per minute.

* Instant messaging costs $0.25 per written message and is billed to the friend or family member on the outside.

* Sending a photo with a message costs an additional $.50, and video attachments cost an additional $1.00 each.

The Cost of “Free” Prison Tablets [Appalachian Prison Book Project]