Incarcerated people in some West Virginia prisons will reportedly be charged to read ebooks. The magazine Reason reports that inmates will have to pay 3 cents per minute to use tablets that have been provided to them for free to access books, music, or games. The ebooks that they would be reading are available through Project Gutenberg, an online library that offers roughly 60,000 ebooks, all of which are free to the public. But charges for using the tablets to read those free books will bring in money for Global Tel Link, the private company that has the contract to provide them.
That’s right: These incarcerated people are reportedly to be charged to read books that are free to everyone else. And as the nonprofit Appalachian Prison Book Project points out, inmates who read can end up paying more money to use the tablets than they make in wages. According to the Prison Policy Initiative’s 2017 estimates, incarcerated people in West Virginia earn between 4 and 58 cents per hour.
Countless studies show that reading can reduce stress levels, slow cognitive decline, and improve social skills. Psychology reviews have also suggested that reading can improve a person’s level of empathy.
For a variety of reasons, people read at different speeds. For example, people who are second-language learners, live with certain disabilities, or simply prefer a slower pace are going to end up spending more to read the same text than someone who speed reads. If you want to reread a book for pleasure or fresh understanding, you’re paying for that privilege again—unlike if you were not incarcerated and rented a book from a library (or purchased it outright).
The solution is to stop charging vulnerable people to read books. Especially free books.