(New York, NY) – The companies providing tablets and e-readers in U.S. prisons and jails should waive all fees for incarcerated people to access content on these tablets, as well as fees for educational and other programs to communicate with incarcerated students, for the duration of the pandemic. A coalition of free expression and criminal justice reform groups made that demand in a letter today to the CEOs of Aventiv Technologies Inc. (the parent company of Securus Technologies and JPay) and Global Tel Link. PEN America, joined by more than 45 organizations concerned with incarcerated people’s access to literature and other content, say those fees only deepen the sense of isolation that incarcerated people are experiencing amid the COVID-19 crisis.

“As we speak, millions of Americans are confined to their homes in order to stop the spread of COVID-19. Yet, they have a multitude of options to continue to engage with the outside world through educational and recreational access to information,” the letter reads. “Incarcerated people, however, only have a small fraction of these options on a regular day, and the coronavirus pandemic has made their situation immeasurably worse. Every state prison has suspended in-person visits with family and friends, and many have cancelled educational and recreational programming, access to prison libraries, and prison work programs.”

Tablets and e-readers are one of the few ways that some of the nation’s two million incarcerated people have to access educational and recreational content in prison, especially critical as officials respond to the virus by further isolating prison populations from the outside world. Pay-per-minute rates for the use of these tables can be prohibitive for incarcerated people, cutting off a crucial lifeline to families, friends, and loved ones.

“As prisons across the country go on lockdown in response to the coronavirus, incarcerated people are more isolated and alone than ever during a time of national anxiety and uncertainty,” said James Tager, deputy director of free expression research and policy at PEN America. “Tablets offer a needed access point for news, books, and other information that provides knowledge, comfort, and connection. Aventiv and GTL can do the right thing by suspending all fees and providing this vital window to the outside world.”

“People in jails, prisons, and detention centers are extremely vulnerable populations in terms of censorship and exploitation by prison profiteers like Securus and GTL,” said Michelle Dillon, public records manager of the Human Rights Defense Center, a co-signatory to the letter. “Especially during a global pandemic, it is crucial that prisoners retain access to tools for connecting to information and their communities, and that these tools be made available without exorbitant price tags. In addition to this call for Securus and GTL to act in the best interest of their customers, we call upon governors and legislators to take action to protect prisoners.”

“In a time of increased isolation for all incarcerated people, access to information and entertainment is a necessary step toward addressing the coronavirus pandemic as it spreads through jails, prisons, and detention centers,” said Jeanie Austin, a jail librarian and one of the drafters of the open letter. “Incarcerated people’s ability to access information can assist them not only in occupying their minds during long (and likely anxious) hours in their cells, but to stay up-to-date with information about the coronavirus, including its spread within prison facilities. The companies named in this letter have the power to provide access to all this. And since the practices of disease-containment within jails, prisons, and detention centers often mimic the disciplinary measures often taken by these facilities–restricting access to programming, library materials, and visitors–the tablets provided by these companies may be the only way in which people who are incarcerated or detained can access information for their own well-being.”

The letter acknowledges that civil society groups across the country have called for these companies to waive other fees during the duration of this pandemic as well—such as charges for phone calls—and that the signatories support these broader calls for action.

“During these challenging times, we support every effort to reduce the strain of isolation on our incarcerated population,” PEN America’s Tager said. “We wanted to use this letter to add to that message, with a focus on the importance of access to literature and other sources of recreation and education for our incarcerated population.”

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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