Prisons are switching to ebooks—but that’s not a good thing

Tablets are an expensive window into the free world.
Tablets are an expensive window into the free world.
Image: AP Photo/Charles Krupa
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Ebooks could be a blessing for prison inmates, with thousands of titles available with one click from one small device. But, as with most other technological innovations introduced in US prisons, they come with a dark side.

Earlier this month, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections announced that inmates would no longer be able to receive physical books from outside organizations or inmate’s families. Instead, the state’s prison system would be switching to ebooks. These will be available on tablets sold by prison telecommunications giant GTL.

The book ban was part of an announcement about security measures aimed at limiting contraband flowing into Pennsylvania’s prisons. This follows a series of incidents where prison staff reported falling ill; authorities linked the illnesses with exposure to synthetic drugs coming into the facilities. (Experts told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the incidents may have been overblown.)

So why is the switch to ebooks such a bad thing?

Books that are donated by nonprofits or sent by families are free for inmates. Ebooks are not.

GTL tablets—on which inmates can also listen to music, play games, and send emails—cost Pennsylvania inmates $147 plus tax. The ebooks that are available through GTL’s propriety system cost anywhere from $3 to $25 each to download, and as the Inquirer (paywall) points out, many of them are much more expensive than they would be in the outside world; Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes costs nearly twice as much through the system than to read it on a Kindle. (Inmates are even charged for free books accessed via the online repository Project Gutenberg).

These costs fall on inmates’ families, many of whom come from low-income backgrounds and are already struggling with countless other fees that the criminal-justice system forces them to pay, such as those for phone calls or surcharges for depositing cash into inmate accounts.

Then there’s the problem of the selection. The Inquirer notes that many books that are popular in prisons—like The Diary of Anne Frank, or books by John Grisham and Robert Ludlum—are not available on the ebook platform. Dictionaries and law textbooks, which are frequently requested, are also not available in the catalog. Neither are contemporary prison memoirs, or Michelle Alexander’s blockbuster book about the US criminal justice system, The New Jim Crow (which is banned by prison authorities around the country). By contrast, nonprofits that provide books to prisons are able to take personalized requests, giving inmates books that they actually need or want, Pittsburgh-based Book’Em told Slate.

Finally, there are risks associated with the tablets themselves. In Idaho, inmates were able to game a tablet system, crediting their bank accounts with thousands of dollars. Several days following the incident, Colorado’s prison system confiscated tablets from 18,000 inmates, claiming security reasons (and denying the Idaho event was related). It’s not hard to imagine a similar situation playing out in Pennsylvania, leaving inmates with even less access to literature.

The Pennsylvania DOC has emphasized that inmates will still be able to use prison libraries. But these are often scarcely supplied, and inmates hesitate to use them for a variety of reasons, such as restricted hours and severe punishments for losing a book, inmates told the Inquirer. They will also be able to request books from a centralized system.

“Prison tablets are touted as bringing the outside world to incarcerated people, but all they seem to be doing is bringing a new, captive market to telecom giants,” Wanda Bertram of the advocacy group the Prison Policy Initiative writes in a blog post.

This is part of a larger pattern in the prison telecommunications industry, which is dominated by two massive companies: GTL and Securus Technologies. In theory, giving inmates access to technology should be beneficial. Email could be a great way to supplement letters and phone calls between inmates and their families—but messages sent through tablets controlled by GTL or its competitors can cost 47 cents for each email, with extra fees for attachments. Video chats could be a convenient way for families to get in touch with their loved ones—but not when they cost $30 for 20 minutes, and are intended to limit in-person visits.

Reading books and connecting with their families helps maintain inmates’ humanity—while also reducing recidivism rates. Technology could boost this power—but too often, it’s working against it.