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Last year, West Virginia contracted with a company, Global Tel Link (GTL), to provide free tablets to prisoners. These kinds of initiatives are rapidly becoming more popular, as states grapple with the legacy of four decades of tough-on-crime policies and renewed public calls for more rehabilitative prisons.
And it sounds great. Until inmates realize the company charges users every time they use the tablets, including 25 cents a page for emails and 3 cents a minute to read e-books. By that calculation, most inmates would end up paying about $15 for each novel or autobiography they attempt to read. To people who have little to no money, that’s not a benefit. That’s exploitation. The only beneficiary, aside from Global Tel Link, is West Virginia, which receives 5% of the profits.
GTL isn’t alone in profiting off of prisoners. Exploitation of prisoners for profit is cropping up more and more across the criminal justice landscape.
JPay, which is owned by Securus Technologies, charges inmates to make calls, send emails and listen to music and audiobooks. In some states, Edovo (Education Over Obstacles) has charged inmates to rent tablets.
Many prisons now ban in-person visits, then allow companies to charge $12.99 or more for video calls. Prison phone calls can cost up to $3.99 a minute. Prison shoes fall apart within weeks, and replacements are only available from a special catalog. Only sweatshirts are provided for the winter. Meals are nutritionally insufficient and, over time, must be supplemented to maintain good health.
All these necessities — shoes, jackets, phone calls, canned tuna from the commissary — rack up fees well above the market rate on the outside. But they often aren’t paid for by prisoners, who have little or no means to earn income. They are paid primarily by families who are often among our poorest. This hidden tax drives already vulnerable communities deeper into poverty and hopelessness.
But a charge to read is especially egregious. The great resource in prison is time: the time to think and improve. The best way for prisoners to fill that time is to read. Reading opens up access to instruction across any subject. It teaches job skills. It reminds those left behind that a world exists beyond the cage.
I would know: It happened that way for me. At 18, I was sentenced to life in prison with little hope of parole. For two years, I was depressed and hopeless, with no purpose or goals. Then a fellow lifer introduced me to books. I started reading every day: history, self-help, newspapers, textbooks, biographies. Reading taught me not only could I make the world a better place, but how to make it a better place: by getting others to read, too.
He and I founded a weekly book club. We got our GEDs. Our Maryland prison didn’t offer a college degree program, so we researched and wrote a proposal that helped persuade them to start one.
We taught résumé writing and career guidance classes. We helped more than a hundred of our fellow inmates prepare for success in the world beyond the fence. We made dozens of life-long readers. We gave ourselves hope and purpose and the tools for success.
It never would have happened without free books. At one point, my family spent hundreds of dollars over just a few months answering my collect calls. But they didn’t have endless amounts of money to continue that, and I certainly didn’t have money. The idea of spending 3 cents a minute on a book was impossible. I didn’t have 3 cents.
You can’t imagine how life-changing it was to realize that my purpose was right there, free for the finding, between the covers of our prison library’s books.
We don’t have to give in to this sort of vulture capitalism. There are charities that provide free books and reading materials. American Prison Data Systems, where I work as the director of engagement, charges correctional systems, not inmates, for tablets. They provide a free online reading library for anyone using their devices, in addition to adaptive education programs.
In institutions where tablets are not yet an option, prisoners should simply get access to the books already in prison libraries, which are frequently restricted.
Each of those simple steps, though, ladder up to a large question: Will society value the potential of men and women behind bars? Over the past several decades, this country has become numb to an unimaginably bloated prison system. The only way we can get around the pain of knowing that 2.3 million people are behind bars today is by telling ourselves that people in prison deserve retribution. This is a dangerous line of thinking if we allow it to justify a prison system that terrorizes and traumatizes millions of people a year — who are disproportionately black, brown or low-income — without providing pathways to rehabilitation.
Being locked in a cage for years is sufficient retribution in itself. Everything else in prison should be about rehabilitation.
When prisoners have resources for growth and maturation, they return to society as better parents and family members, active contributors to their communities, and productive workers. Their loved ones are less likely to be drawn into the cycle of violence, their communities grow safer, our economy becomes stronger and they are far less likely to return to prison.
I was lucky. I made it out. I wrote books, with the fellow lifer I mentioned earlier, that proved our good intentions, and our sentences were reduced. If we hadn’t, the state of Maryland would likely have paid more than $3 million (about $44,000 a year at likely 35 more years each) to keep us locked up for our full terms. That’s just for the two of us. But instead, we’re free. We’re working. We’re running businesses. We’re paying taxes. We’re paying it forward and inspiring others.
There are not a thousand inmates in prison right now like us. There are not 10,000. There are hundreds of thousands. Imagine where we’d be if our society made a few basic investments — like covering the costs of books — for each of them. Imagine how much human potential we’re losing every day we fail to do so.