‘Freedom’ to Read on the Inside

‘Freedom’ to Read on the Inside

What do you do if you want a book, but can’t pay for it?  The answer is obvious – get it from the library.  But not all libraries are created equal, and some lack the resources to acquire the material their patrons need.  In particular, prison libraries are more dependent on donations of books than public or academic libraries are, which generally enjoy more public support and stable funding.  This isn’t a small problem – almost 2.3 million people in this country are in prison; and 47,000 in Indiana.

However, recent technological advances have resulted in many states issuing e-readers to prisoners, similar to educational initiatives in schools.  This allows incarcerated people to maintain more of the human connection the rest of us enjoy by sending email or videograms to their loved ones (typically, prisoner communication is screened before it is sent, either by a keyword filter or manually, depending on the nature of the inmate’s crimes – just like with ordinary mail).  It also allows, within the parameters of very stringent content filters, the ability to entertain or educate themselves with e-books, and maintain the basic computer skills that are becoming increasingly necessary for daily life.

GTL Inspire e-reader, used by Indiana prisons

There is a distinct need for books in prisons.  Educational, recreational, and faith-based books especially are in demand.  So, unfortunately, are legal guides, such as do-it-yourself divorce guides for those with no hope of affording an attorney (a nuanced look at the legal needs of prisoners is an equally complex problem, but beyond the scope and ability of this present blog to do justice to).  Obviously, there are limits – you’ll never see a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook in a prison, and many also ban books that include content like maps, nudity, or a plot that encourages protest or escape.  But access to educational materials indisputably improves the odds of a prisoner not recidivating by 43%, which is an unquestioned good for society.  Educational programs also improve post-prison employment, reduce in-prison violence, lead to better outcomes for children of prisoners, and reduce future demands on government support.

E-books for prisoners seems like an excellent idea to fill this need for educational materials.  For the one-time cost of the reader, inmates can access a wealth of free information, including all the great classics of literature, such as those furnished through Project Gutenberg (a resource so valuable, IU East includes it in our list of databases).  Technology companies often offer these readers to state prison systems for free.  But there are many, many strings attached to this apparent generosity.  Only a few companies (such as GTL, Edovo, and JPay/Securus Technologies) offer these tools, and they have very aggressive profit-making models.

Indiana has a contract with GTL (which already supplied telephone services) for readers through June of 2022.  You can read the full contract online here.  Every email costs a prisoner 27 cents.  Fees for books, audiobooks, music, radio, and news are all separate and all high – $20 for audiobooks; $10 for news.  This may not sound like much, but in Indiana, prisoners typically make between 12 and 25 cents an hour.  Some vendors also monitor and record all voice communications.  This isn’t unusual – such companies routinely violate privacy by using inmates’ personal data for ‘any purpose’ – something which prisons explicitly allow in the contracts they sign with the vendors.  Sometimes, the communications companies even illegally give law enforcement recordings of video conferences or calls between inmates and their attorneys.  In addition to predatory costs on prisoners, the Indiana Department of Corrections receives a 10% kickback on purchased content, making them even more unlikely to oppose any of these measures.

This conflict of interest is not an unusual model for law enforcement moneymaking.  For example, in Indiana, sheriff’s departments are authorized to collect tax warrants – delinquent state taxes owed on income, withholding and sales.  The sheriff then receives 10% of this money in addition to their contracted annual salary – in Wayne County, this can amount to tens of thousands of dollars per year.  Since sheriffs collect money that they then directly benefit from, corrupt officials can use the system to enrich themselves at the expense of particularly vulnerable people by inordinately pursuing these cases (of note, however, Wayne County’s previous sheriff, Jeff Cappa, refused to exploit this system and insisted on receiving only his pre-negotiated, contracted salary).

Yet still, it could become much worse.  West Virginia has recently been exposed for far more predatory pricing, charging for time used rather than titles read or for simple blanket monthly access.  A ‘free’ public domain e-book will cost prisoners 3 to 5 cents per MINUTE to read, and consider that a typical-length book may take ten or more hours to read.  Prisoners are being gouged for things most of us have unlimited free access to.  Selection is also much more limited for the e-books than it is for conventional physical donations.

More, some prisons are using the presence of e-readers as an excuse to ban all physical books (which, if adopted in Indiana, would force prisoners to exclusively use the ones the Indiana Department of Corrections receives a 10% kickback for).  IDoC has in the recent past slowly limited sources of book donations to prisons, so this is not an unreasonable concern.  It comes at a time, though, when recidivism in Indiana is at an all-time low – making further arbitrary restrictions on access to materials seem especially challenging.

For now, though, private citizens or institutions are still able to donate physical materials to prisons – the IDoC donation form can be found here.  The Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project is a nonprofit book donation organization that serves Indiana, as well.  You could also protest this restriction to a government official, either one at the IDoC, or more likely, an elected official – IDOC Watch lists contact information for relevant office holders here.

Reading is your right.  There is a good chance you will make use of this right over the winter break.  Books in the public domain are free, and you can linger over them and revisit them as often as you like.  But the same is not true for everyone in Indiana.

Interested in researching the right to read?  Ask us at iueref@iue.edu.

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