(New York, NY) – West Virginia’s recent institution of pay-per-minute electronic tablets in prisons is predatory and would effectively limit prisoners’ access to free books, PEN America said today. The program allows incarcerated people to read a limited selection of books from a free online library, but the service provider will charge up to 5 cents per minute to access this content, with the state sharing some of the revenue. The private vendor, Global Tel Link, also reportedly maintains the right to raise prices without state permission.

“If you want to demonstrate how misguided prison policies towards access to literature have become, this serves as a perfect example,” said James Tager, deputy director of Free Expression Research and Policy at PEN America. “Incarcerated people are actually being charged money to read books already in the public domain, and the state gets a portion of the revenue. Not only is this a predatory policy that will actively disincentivize incarcerated people from reading, but it rewards the state for being complicit in these restrictions. After all, do we really expect West Virginia prison officials to develop more permissive policies towards book access, now that the state is literally receiving a monetary award for funneling incarcerated people towards these pay-per-minute plans?”

In its September 2019 report “Literature Locked Up,” PEN America examined the recent trend of prisons deploying e-readers. In November 2018, responding to public pressure, the state of Pennsylvania reversed a policy that banned physical book orders and required prisoners to buy e-tablets in order to read. Civil rights groups have increasingly warned that prisons may turn to e-tablets as a lower-cost substitute for physical services — such as law libraries or access to legal assistance — in ways that ultimately degrade the substance of incarcerated people’s constitutional rights.

“The average person may see a headline that says ‘prisoners receive e-tablets’ and think that such an agreement can only be beneficial for the incarcerated population’s right to read. Not necessarily,” Tager said. “We have to look at how these policies are being implemented in practice. Are they truly enlarging incarcerated people’s access to literature? Or are they further entrenching the idea that access to literature is a privilege for incarcerated people and a source of profit for the state? In the case of West Virginia, charging for per-minute access to books in the public domain clearly falls in the latter category. Access to free books should be free. Period.”

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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.

CONTACT: Stephen Fee, Director of Communications, sfee@pen.org, +1 202 309 8892