In the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, inmates pay five cents per minute to read free ebooks.
As prisons across the United States are increasingly charging prisoners with high fees for reading ebooks or making video calls - while at the same time paying them less than a dollar an hour for prison labor - lawmakers in three states prepared the draft of a bill that could curb this practice.
“It’s clear that the criminal justice system is unjust and disproportionately impacts communities of color,” Congressional representative David Trone of Maryland said.
“Access to books and other educational materials for prisoners just makes sense. Instead of exploiting our prison population, we need to focus on getting them ready for re-entry in the workforce, schools, and our communities,” he added.
In nine states, state prisons have introduced pay-per-minute reading and video conferencing services, under agreements signed with private telecom companies.
Giving prisoners access to tablets that allow them to read, listen to music and chat with family and friends seems on its face a good proposition, however, critics point to the huge gap between prison wages and the costs charged for these services, traditionally free and considered essential in helping imprisoned people maintain contact with the outside world.
In Missouri, inmates are charged worth a month’s prison salary (US$7.50) to make a 30 minutes video call, while at the same time, visits are increasingly being banned.
“You are basically squeezing a profit from the most marginalized and poorest group of people in society,” said the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s national prison project, David Fathi.
“They literally have no financial resources. There is no justification for charging people to read or to talk to their loved ones. The privatization of incarceration and the profit motive is outrageous. If these policies are not modified I see a legal challenge and fully support legislation against this.”
In a 2000 study by the University of Texas Medical Branch and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, approximately 80% of prisoners were reported to be functionally illiterate, with 48% found to be dyslexic.
This, for instance, means that reading slowly will cost inmates between US$12-US$18 for a 200-page book.
On the other hand, prison labor -allowed under the 13th amendment of the constitution- remains widespread across the U.S. In states, such as Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, and Georgia, prisoners are not even paid for their work. in Alabama, inmates who protested against forced labor were put in long-term solitary confinement.