West Virginia Inmates Will Be Charged by the Minute to Read E-Books on Tablets

The tablets aren't supposed to replace regular books, but similar policies have led to restrictions on book donations and price-gouging in other states.


Inmates at several West Virginia prisons are getting free electronic tablets to read books, send emails, and communicate with their families—but there's a catch.

Any inmates looking to read Moby Dick may find that it will cost them far more than it would have if they'd simply gotten a mass market paperback, because the tablets charge readers by the minute.

Under a 2019 contract between the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation (WVDCR) and Global Tel Link (GTL), the company that is providing electronic multimedia tablets to 10 West Virginia prisons, inmates will be charged 3 cents a minute to read books, even though the books all come from Project Gutenberg, a free online library of more than 60,000 texts in the public domain.

The WVDCR says the tablets provide access to educational materials, incentives for good behavior, and an easy way to stay in touch with loved ones. But the Appalachian Prison Book Project, a nonprofit that offers free books and education to inmates, says the fee structure is exploitative.

"If you pause to think or reflect, that will cost you," says Katy Ryan, the group's founder and educational coordinator. "If you want to reread a book, you will pay the entire cost again. This is about generating revenue for the state and profit for the industry. Tablets under non-predatory terms could be a very good thing inside prisons. GTL does not provide that." 

According to the contract, detailed by Appalachian Prison Book Project, using the tablets will cost $0.05 per minute (currently discounted to $0.03) to read books, listen to music, or play games; $0.25 per minute for video visitations; $0.25 per written message; and $0.50 to send a photo with a message.

The Prison Policy Initiative estimated in 2017 that wages in West Virginia prisons range between $0.04 and $0.58 an hour.

According to the contract, the WVDCR will also receive a 5 percent commission on gross revenue from the tablets.

In a statement to Reason, a WVDCR spokesperson noted that no inmates are being forced to use the tablets. In addition, the 5 percent commission will go toward a fund at each prison that inmates "use for such things as paying for cable TV and hosting open house visitation events for families." And the agency is not restricting purchases or donations of regular print books.

That last item is important, and hopefully it will remain true. There's been a troubling trend in other parts of the country of prisons restricting book donations and forcing inmates to purchase books through pre-approved vendors or to use electronic tablets provided by private contractors like GTL and JPay.

Earlier this year, Book Riot reported that numerous Ohio prisons were banning book donations by groups like Appalachian Prison Book Project. Amid media scrutiny, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) announced it would lift the bans for third-party book donations. But family members are still banned from sending print material. In at least one Ohio prison, family members must put money into the inmate's account so they can order it themselves. JPay, which handles money transfers for the Ohio prison system, takes a cut on all deposits. The director of the ODRC is the former general manager of JPay.

Pennsylvania, Washington, and three prisons in New York all attempted similar bans on donations of used books to inmates, then relented under citizen pressure. The prisons cited security concerns over contraband, but news investigations showed there was little actual evidence of smuggling via donated dictionaries.

Last year, after Florida inked a new contract with JPay to provide multimedia tablets to inmates, inmates were forced to return MP3 players they had purchased through the state's previous provider, losing all the tracks they had purchased as well.

Pennsylvania also pays a private contractor $4 million a year for digitized mail services, where letters to inmates are scanned and sent to inmates as black and white photocopies while the original letters are destroyed.

In 2017, the WVDCR instituted a policy barring inmates from receiving original mail.

Although the books on Project Gutenberg are all free, there is little the organization can do to stop GTL and the WVDCR from charging for access to the tablets.

"It's all very sad," Greg Newby, CEO of the Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation, wrote in an email to the Appalachian Prison Book Project. "From the trademark license of Project Gutenberg eBooks, I don't see leverage to do anything about it. I'm glad that prisoners seem to have less expensive access to PG eBooks than to other content, but would greatly prefer if it was all free (and other reforms to the exploitation of prisoners)."

GTL did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

NEXT: Do We Need a World Data Organization?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I’d still support the philanthropists-donate-free-print-books route. Taxpayers aren’t on the hook, and prisoners can educate and uplift themselves without having to pay for doing so.

    1. Agreed. I think in general it’s ok if, in addition to that, the prisoners can still buy e-books (renting by the minute is just absurd).

      1. It promotes speed reading skills.

  2. “According to the contract, the WVDCR will also receive a 5 percent commission on gross revenue from the tablets”

    This is copied directly from the textbook definition of ‘conflict of interest’.

    1. Kickback is as kickback does.

  3. You know how you can get access to free books any time? By not being a piece of shit criminal and going to prison.

    1. Riiiight. Because all violated laws are just, because all inmates have violated just laws, and because law enforcement, prosecutors, and courts are noble paragons of virtue.

      1. Contrary to the bullshit oyu spew all the time, the number of inmates in prison for drug offenses and non-violent crimes is less than 5% of the total prison population. Since you already got your jailbreak legislation through, you’ll be seeing what wonderful young dindus these people are when the crime statistics start climbing back to their 1970s highs, as they’ve been trending for the last several years.

        1. Grand Theft Auto or home invasion are “non-violent” crimes. I would hope there would be many people in prison for those, and others.

          However, it’s absurd that even one person is in prison for drug possession and other victimless crimes….and there are probably millions who are incarcerated for those. Or at least hundreds of thousands. One is too many.

        2. You’re wrong of course. But of course you would have known that if you weren’t some inbred moron.

          Roughly 45% of prisoners in state prison systems are there for non-violent offenses. That’s over 900,000 prisoners – or more than the entire prison population of every other country on Earth x China.

          1. ” non-violent offenses”

            Like grand theft, forgery, fraud, etc.

            I’d have more sympathy if you weren’t so mendacious.

    2. Yeah. Let’s just keep having them come out worse than when they went in.

      Fucking stupid.

      1. If only they’d had some books!

        Hey you know what? Everybody who is middle class owns a house. We should give poor people houses so that they behave like middle class people!

        Retarded cargo cultism.

        1. False equivalence.

      2. Teaching them to shop wisely – why use an expensive tablet when you can get the book cheaper on dead tree – is a valuable life lesson.

        Thinking they are not capable of figuring this out is bigotry.

    3. Do you recognize an exception for innocents, James Cameron, or are you an even more opprobrious bigoted clinger than I had concluded?

      1. Hi, gecko!

      2. Yes we should spend hundreds of billions of dollars providing free books to the 99.9% of inmates in prison who are guilty because of the 0.01% that are innocent.

        1. Get an education, James Cameron. Start with mathematics. Backwater religious schooling doesn’t count. Neither does homeschooling involving substandard parents.

          1. hey you two… keep… keep going.

    4. Introducing criminals to a wider world and maybe changing their thinking about the lives…or even if that part doesn’t work, keeping them quiet and out of the guards’ hair…none of that counts?

      No, because people in prison are mere garbage, not even human.

      1. because people in prison are mere garbage

        Yep. Absolutely true. With the small exception of the wrongfully convicted, which is a fraction of 1%.

        not even human.

        Nope, still human. Human pieces of shit are still human. And 50 million copies of The Great Gatsby aren’t going to change that. Quit treating these assholes like children who you will one day inculcate with moral values and good manners. Or if you feel so confident that they’re just one Danielle Steele novel away from becoming stock brokers, let them live at your house.

        1. “Or if you feel so confident that they’re just one Danielle Steele novel away from becoming stock brokers, let them live at your house.”

          I won’t notice because I’ll be at your house banging your wife.

          1. Eddy, don’t drop your standards that low. There are literally millions of better women out there.

        2. Around here, there are plenty of inbred fuckwads. Your contribution to that Venn diagram isn’t necessary.

          Kindly keep your stupidity and hyperbole to yourself.

    5. Why don’t you do the world a favor? Pull your bottom lip up over your head and swallow! People like you are the true scum of the earth and don’t even deserve an opinion on anything. You and your ilk are a cancerous mole on the face of society that needs to be excised!

    6. Jeez, Cameron! You seem like a dumb, hateful motherfucker.

      1. You misspelled “are”.

    7. Genuinely curious what causes someone to be so spiteful and pathetic without even a veneer of decency.

      Grow the fuck up.

      1. Those that fight the hardest against an idea are generally those who are closest to accepting it as truth.

    8. Remember kids: Unlimited punishment is a-okay because committing crimes is voluntary!

  4. Cost for reading eBook reader: $0.05 / minute
    Average wage for prisoner: $0.04 – $0.58 / hour

    So it would cost anywhere from 6x to 60x your salary for the privilege of reading an ebook! That is a pretty extortionate. If we extrapolated that to the outside world, it would be $330 an hour to use an ebook reader for someone making minimum wage!

    That’s pretty unconscionable.

  5. People who profit from exploiting others make me wish there were a hell.

    1. There is a hell. The prisoners are living it.

      1. I was referring to the illusory hell associated with childhood indoctrination.

        1. I am pretty sure that Hell is organized like a public school

  6. This is ridiculous. I can understand the message an video visitation fees. For those, there is a clear monitoring cost by Corrections that comes with the convenience of having direct communications outside of the facility.

    But the music, books, videos and games being charged by the minute is insane. If your JPay library is already curated to be prison appropriate (putting aside First Amendment issues), then there is no reason for the facility to be incurring additional costs.

    1. Not to mention that if thi$ take$ off, there would be lot$ of reason$ to ‘encourage’ people to go to and $tay in pri$on.

  7. Sweet deal. You can get a kindle for $50-100. The books are free. Government contracts are awesome.

  8. What a great idea! Why should these slackers waste time reading and learning when they could be practicing their strong-arm and grafting skills?


  9. “The tablets aren’t supposed to replace regular books,”

    Maybe that is because tablets are not replacements for books, merely the means to read those replacements.

  10. Less than two bucks an hour to play video games is cheaper than arcade video games.

    Other than the kickbacks I’m really not seeing the problem here.

  11. If we extrapolated that to the outside world, it would be $330 an hour to use an ebook reader for someone making minimum wage! Provide you all the items which you will be buy online in Auckland Newzealand.

  12. Office productivity that has been equipped with various advanced features like backstage view, improved ribbon of the Office, supports various file formats, Document co-authoring, and protected view that enables the documents to be more secure.

  13. Just read a book watching a similar booklet that is made into that movie. A couple of facts in a book that people neglect watching a film. We do not have the logic of smell or color our minds can create can someone write my assignment for me

  14. The Genuine Leather Vests Mens that are most inclining and all around kept up plan and organized. Top leather jackets have firm have confidence in quality control and consumer loyalty.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.