(New York, NY) – PEN America, alongside a coalition of groups concerned with access to literature and education in prisons, released its Best Practices for E-Reader Tablets in Carceral Institutions.  The document, which has been endorsed by 55 organizations, including the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison and The San Francisco Public Library, was developed by PEN America and other members of the Coalition for Carceral Access to Literature and Learning (CALL) in part to respond to growing concerns that e-readers are too often introduced to prisons in ways that supplant, rather than supplement, access to physical books, and that threaten to normalize predatory practices

The Best Practices guidance addresses seven main concerns:  Expanding access to literature; pricing; content and e-reader vendor practices; infrastructure and access; privacy rights; transparency around e-reader policies; and collaboration with public libraries. Taken overall, these Best Practices provide a roadmap for policies and practices that prison officials, e-reader vendors, and other actors can commit themselves to in order to ensure that e-readers serve the needs of incarcerated people.

Incarcerated people face a number of problems when it comes to using digital tablets as e-reader devices for accessing literature and learning materials. As more facilities begin to introduce tablets, observers have noted cases where prison officials have touted the tablets as an alternative to physical books–laying the groundwork for expansive bans of physical books in prison facilities.  Under some arrangements, tablets are free of charge but come with costly fees. In other cases, incarcerated users must pay for the device and services, with charges often representing an additional financial burden on incarcerated people or their families. 

You can read the Best Practices report here: 

“We are at a major inflection point when it comes to access to literature in American prisons. If Americans do not insist on thoughtful policies towards the introduction of e-readers into prisons, we risk exacerbating existing problems such as arbitrary book banning and predatory pricing of e-books. These Best Practices represent a potential path forward that centers the literary, educational, and rehabilitative needs and interests of people in prison,” said James Tager, Director of Research at PEN America.

The Coalition for Carceral Access to Literature and Learning, or CALL, is a national group of advocates and academics, formed in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and in recognition of its effect on incarcerated people, alongside broader inequities in access to literature and education in prisons. In April 2020, CALL released an open letter, signed by more than 45 organizations, calling on the two largest prison e-reader vendors to waive all fees on incarcerated people’s access to digital content during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We believe that the introduction and use of e-readers in prisons will accelerate, becoming an increasingly common avenue of access to literature. The policies that carceral institutions and e-reader vendors put in place may determine future access to literature for more than 2 million incarcerated persons across the United States”, says Jodi Lincoln of the Pittsburgh Prison Book Project, a CALL member.

PEN America’s previous work championing access to literature in prison includes its 2019 report, Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban. PEN America also operates the Prison and Justice Writing Program, which earlier this month released the new book The Sentences That Create Us: Crafting A Writer’s Life in Prison (Haymarket Books), a collection of essays representing a road map for incarcerated people and their allies to have a thriving writing life behind bars.

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. pen.org

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, PEN America Communications and Media Consultant, STrimel@PEN.org, 201-247-5057