Prison Inmates Will Soon Be Reading E-Books, But That’s Not a Good Thing — Quartz

E-books could be a boon for inmates, with thousands of titles available at the click of a button from a small device. But, like most other technological innovations introduced to American prisons, they have a dark side.

Earlier this month, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections announced that inmates could no longer receive physical books from outside organizations or inmate families. Instead, the state prison system would switch to e-books. These will be available on tablets sold by prison telecommunications giant GTL.

The book ban was part of an announcement about security measures to limit contraband entering Pennsylvania prisons. This follows a series of incidents where prison staff said they had fallen ill; authorities linked the illnesses to exposure to synthetic drugs entering the facilities. (Experts told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the incidents may have been exaggerated.)

So why is the switch to ebooks such a bad thing?

Books donated by associations or sent by families are free for prisoners. E-books are not.

GTL tablets, on which inmates can also listen to music, play games and send emails, cost Pennsylvania inmates $147 plus tax. The e-books available through GTL’s proprietary system cost between $3 and $25 each to download, and as Inquirer (paywall) points out, many of them are much more expensive than they would be in the outside world; Memoirs of Frank McCourt Angela’s ashes costs almost twice as much through the system as reading it on a Kindle. (Inmates are even charged for free books accessed through the Project Gutenberg online repository).

These costs fall on the families of inmates, many of whom come from low-income backgrounds and are already saddled with countless other costs that the criminal justice system forces them to pay, such as those for phone calls or surcharges for filing the money in the inmates’ accounts. .

Many popular prison books, like “The Diary of Anne Frank” or books by John Grisham and Robert Ludlum, are not available as e-books.

Then there is the problem of selection. The Inquirer notes that many popular prison books, such as Anne Frank’s diary, or books by John Grisham and Robert Ludlum — are not available on the eBook platform. Dictionaries and law manuals, which are frequently requested, are also not available in the catalog. Neither contemporary prison memoirs nor Michelle Alexander’s bestselling book on the American criminal justice system, The new Jim Crow (which is prohibited by prison authorities throughout the country). In contrast, nonprofits that provide books to prisons are able to respond to personalized requests, giving inmates the books they actually need or want, said Book’Em, based in Pittsburgh, in Slate.

Finally, there are risks associated with the tablets themselves. In Idaho, inmates were able to play a tablet system, crediting their bank accounts with thousands of dollars. Several days after the incident, the Colorado prison system confiscated the tablets of 18,000 inmates, citing security concerns (and denying that the Idaho event was related). It’s not hard to imagine a similar situation in Pennsylvania, leaving inmates with even less access to literature.

The Pennsylvania DOC stressed that inmates will still be able to use prison libraries. But these are often barely provided and inmates are reluctant to use them for a variety of reasons, such as restricted hours and harsh punishments for losing a book, inmates told the Inquirer. They will also be able to request books from a centralized system.

“Prison tablets are touted as bringing the outside world to the incarcerated, but all they seem to do is bring a new captive market to the telecommunications giants,” writes Wanda Bertram of advocacy group Prison Policy Initiative in a blog post.

This is part of a larger pattern in the prison telecommunications industry, which is dominated by two large companies: GTL and Securus Technologies. In theory, giving inmates access to technology should be beneficial. Emails could be a great way to supplement letters and phone calls between inmates and their families, but messages sent via tablets controlled by GTL or its competitors can cost 47 cents for each email, with fees additional for attachments. Video chats could be a convenient way for families to connect with loved ones, but not when they cost $30 for 20 minutes and are meant to limit in-person visits.

Reading books and connecting with their families helps maintain the humanity of inmates, while reducing recidivism rates. Technology could increase that power, but too often it gets in the way.