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Prison Ereaders and Tablets Should Be Free During COVID-19

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

Ed. Note (4/21): Clarification made in the fourth paragraph, which read as though GTL charged incarcerated individuals for public domain books.

Among the most vulnerable populations under normal circumstances, those experiencing incarceration are now even more at-risk at the height of the global pandemic. Confined spaces, coupled with staff who are in and out of the facility, raise concerns about how quickly the virus can spread in jails and prisons. This, along with the lack of tests available to the general population, let alone incarcerated populations, have made these places and the people in them worried about their lives in an entirely different way.

As has been reported here numerous times, book bans and unfair, underhanded practices also plague jail and prison systems. Those in prison have their capacity to educate and entertain themselves through books hindered, if not all together shut down, thanks to pricing that’s out of their budget or the budgets of their loved ones, policies limiting donations to individuals and facilities, and more.

Today PEN America, the American Library Association, and a team of partners advocating on behalf of the rights of incarcerated people have called for companies to end fees associated with tablets and digital materials. The letter calls for pay-per-minute fees that hinder access to newspapers and ebooks cease through the remainder of the pandemic.

This includes public domain books—like those provided freely by Project Gutenberg—for which companies such as JPay have elected to charge incarcerated users.

“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 in the PEN America press release. Dillon is the public records manager of the Human Rights Defense Center and co-signer on 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.”

Many jobs available to those who experience incarceration are winding down, meaning that the small amount of money individuals could earn (sometimes as meagre and inhumane as 4¢ an hour) is no longer an option. In an era where access to reliable, accurate, factually-based information is especially vital, charging vulnerable populations dehumanizes citizens who are already more likely to be among the most marginalized in the U.S.

The letter also makes a case for eliminating fees charged for communicating with loves ones.

“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 in PEN America’s press release. “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.”

This letter and the group aren’t the first to call for such reform right now, and the letter acknowledges the work of other advocate groups demanding change. There are over 2 million people experiencing incarceration in the U.S., with more Black people than white living behind bars.

Black Americans have also been most vulnerable to COVID-19 and complications leading to death.

“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.”

Find below the letter in full:

TO: Dave Abel, President and CEO of Aventiv Technologies, Inc (parent company of Securus Technologies and JPay); Deborah Alderson, CEO of Global Tel Link (GTL) 

We, the undersigned, are a coalition of groups and individuals concerned with the rights and dignity of incarcerated people, as well as with their access to reading materials alongside other sources of information and recreation. We write to ask that you waive your fees for incarcerated people to access digital content on your tablets during this pandemic.

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. In fact, several major companies that offer digital content–like Audible, JSTOR, and Cengage–have taken steps to make more of their content freely available during the pandemic, to help lessen the burden of isolation on readers.

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. Many prisons have also responded by “locking down” their incarcerated populations, so that incarcerated people spend all but a few minutes a day in their cells.

In brief, the response of prison administration to an urgent public health danger has also deeply diminished incarcerated people’s access to sources of connection, communication, recreation, and education.

We know that many concerned groups have called upon you to waive the fees that incarcerated people and their families will struggle to pay especially in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis: Fees such as the costs for phone calls, video calls, and email; account deposit fees; and the fees to access free content on your e-readers. We support these calls, and–given our organizations’ work on incarcerated people’s access to reading materials and other content–want to elaborate on why access fees to e-reader content should be one of the fees that you waive.

The e-tablets that you sell are one of the few ways to access recreational and educational content in prison—especially now, when other options have disappeared. However, even when the content itself has been made available for free, such as through e-books in the public domain offered by Project Gutenberg, incarcerated people are often charged access or per-minute fees that your companies levy.

These costs can be prohibitive for incarcerated people. Those working prison jobs—now paused by the pandemic—may make as little as four cents an hourMeanwhile, families supporting incarcerated individuals are among those financially impacted by the pandemic, leaving them particularly unable to shoulder these costs.

The American Library Association has concluded that such charges “serve to deepen existing inequities barring free access to information for all people.”

Put simply, charging for access to tablet content during this time will only place further financial and emotional strain on the families of incarcerated people, many of which are among those hardest hit by the fallout of the Coronavirus pandemic. You have the power to lift this burden.

Meanwhile, educational groups–unable to meet with their incarcerated students–are now relying on email to communicate digitally and to share educational content and lessons. But the fees that you charge for such communications mean that both educational groups and incarcerated people must shoulder additional costs for the duration of this pandemic. Incarcerated people should not have to pay a financial price for continuing their education even while under lockdown.

This is a time when all of us, as Americans, are struggling against isolation, disconnection, and fear. That includes incarcerated people. Your tablets can offer them content that serves as a source of recreation and education, as well as a sense of connection to the outside world.

Such content should be free to access. We call upon you to suspend all charges for accessing digital content on your tablets, and all charges related to educational and other programming that has switched to digital communication during the pandemic, until facilities across the United States have resumed in-person visits, library access, and other programming that has been suspended as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.