“War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength.”
So goes the official slogan of George Orwell’s Oceania, a hyper-surveillance-based police state underpinned by the illogic of doublethink. Defined in 1984 as “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them,” doublethink camouflages exploitation as generosity and violence as social order. The novel highlights the role of language manipulation in the maintenance of state power and the compliance of its citizenry.
The Hidden Costs of “Free” Prison Tablets
Aside from visiting a public library, any nonincarcerated American citizen with Internet access can unlock the secrets of Oceania for free by downloading 1984 from Project Gutenberg Australia. For those who prefer handwritten notes in margins, a used paperback is available online for less than a dollar. Or you can buy it new for $7.54.
As a result of a new contract between Global Tel Link (GTL) and the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation (WVDCR), you might think people incarcerated in West Virginia prisons could use the “free” GTL tablets to download a “free” copy of 1984 and journey from “It was a bright cold day in April” to “He loved Big Brother.”
But people in WV prisons will be charged 5 cents/minute to access much of the tablet’s content. For now, a promotional discount brings the cost of reading e-books down to 3 cents/minute. Either way, it’s no way to read.
The books on the tablet come entirely from Project Gutenberg’s free online library. Most of the books we receive requests for at APBP—how-to guides (carpentry, starting a business, repairing small engines, etc.), contemporary fiction, popular mysteries and sci-fi, African American literature, Native studies, recent autobiographies—will not be available.
Since Project Gutenberg archives older texts that have entered the public domain, they do not allow institutions to charge people to download their e-books and audio books. The per-minute tablet usage fees provide a clever way for GTL to profit from people reading “free” books.
Although it looks like the use of their free archives may not violate their trademark, the Chief Executive and Director of Project Gutenberg, Dr. Gregory Newby, finds it “very sad.” In an email to APBP, he wrote that he would be “very pleased if [we] can convince GTL to change their practices.”
A Familiar and Disturbing Trend: Profit Over People
The per-minute charge will bring in far more profit than an e-book vendor who charges a set price for downloads, as the cost to read a book far exceeds the cost to purchase one. And that cost will be especially unfair to new readers and people with dyslexia.
The paperback version of 1984 is about 330 pages. It will take a person who is able to read 30 pages per hour about 11 hours to read the novel. At the discounted $0.03/minute usage fee, 11 hours of reading a free book will cost a person about $19.80—and this is if you don’t stop to think or re-read.
In New York, JPay provided “free” tablets to people in prison and anticipates making about $16 million by 2021.
For those familiar with how private industries profit from mass imprisonment, the words “free” and “access” start to look at lot like doublethink for “cost-prohibitive” and “further isolation.”
Of course, people in prison are often excited to have access to tablets—and with good reason. Tablets can be part of quality educational programming and improved communication with family and friends. But the dystopian agreement between GTL and WVDCR prioritizes private profit over the public good.
GTL Tablets in WV Prisons
The 2019 contract, signed February 25 after a five-month pilot program at St. Mary’s Correctional Center, expanded the tablet program to ten prisons in WV:
- Anthony Correctional Center
- Salem Correctional Center and Jail
- Denmar Correctional Center and Jail
- Prunytown Correctional Center and Jail
- Huttonsville Correctional Center and Jail (including Work Camp)
- Northern Correctional Facility
- Ohio County Correctional Center and Jail
- Mount Olive Correctional Complex and Jail (including Salem Work Camp)
- Martinsburg Correctional Center and Jail
- Lakin Correctional Center and Jail
Marketing for GTL tablets paints a picture of a benevolent collaboration between two parties working in the best interests of both the public and the incarcerated. GTL tablets are “provided” to incarcerated people free of charge and “at no cost to the taxpayers.” Tablets are “designed for correctional settings” and include sophisticated security features while offering a range of “free apps” as well as the ability to purchase additional apps.
A press release highlights the wide range of features that offer unprecedented access to the world beyond bars—educational materials, pathways to electronically file grievances, email, video chat, messaging services, audiobooks, music, games, and e-books.
Here’s the breakdown of costs:
- Accessing content, which includes “music, games, electronic messaging, eBooks,” costs $0.05 per minute.
- Video visitation features cost $0.25 per minute.
- Instant messaging costs $0.25 per written message and is billed to the friend or family member on the outside.
- Sending a photo with a message costs an additional $.50, and video attachments cost an additional $1.00 each.
These rates could represent minimum charges, as GTL “may in its discretion change any pricing. Taxes, and regulatory and other mandated fees, may also apply.” The company reserves the right to terminate the contract if expenditures have not been recouped in 12 months.
Financial Issues on the Inside and Outside
A family member of a person incarcerated in WV explained to APBP, “Tablets allow us to communicate with our loved ones, but families may face financial issues. It’s very expensive. It’s easy to use $10 or more in a day if you text through the app like you would text on a phone.”
According to research by the Prison Policy Initiative, wages for regular jobs in WV prisons range between $0.04 and $0.58 per hour. Taking the average ($0.30 per hour), a person must work for 66 hours to earn enough to read a book like 1984.
To further ensure profits, the contract specifies that at least 80% of people in any given prison must have access to the paid content and that the prison must designate a point person, provide space to store the tablets, distribute tablets and headsets, allow for the sale of accessories (earbuds, headsets, etc.) at commissary, report malfunctions and damage, and facilitate use of the product.
Imagine if higher education programs in prison had this kind of access and assistance.
Why Prisons and Jails Want Tablets
So, why is the WVDCR willing to sign off on this type of predatory contract?
For one, WVDCR will receive a 5% commission on gross revenue, including fees from video visitation. This kind of commission has, in other states, led to efforts to restrict books, in-person visits, and educational opportunities even further.
Also, like several states, WVDCR is suspicious of print books and letters as a possible route for drugs. Prison book projects are united in our certainty that the answer to contraband is not to cut millions of people off from critical resources and human connections. The answer is, instead, to address addiction and provide meaningful programming. As John J. Lennon, who spent 18 years in prison, explained in a 2018 article in The Guardian: “Restrictive policies didn’t deter me from smuggling drugs and doing drugs. Opportunity did.”
A Final Turn
As it turns out, only Project Gutenberg Australia has 1984 in its archives. It is unlikely that incarcerated tablet users in WV will be able to access the novel at all.
Irony doesn’t begin to do justice to this situation or to the increasing attacks across the country on the right to learn and to read inside prison. It is vicious. And we have to turn it around.
How You Can Help
Contact WVDRC Commissioner Betsy Jividen (304.558.2036) and WV Governor Jim Justice (304.558.2000) and share your concerns. To get you started, we’ve written a sample script:
Hi. My name is ________. I’m calling because I learned that the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation entered into a new tablet contract with Global Tel Link that forces incarcerated people to pay $0.03–0.05 per minute to read books. People in prison cannot afford to read at these costs. I am asking that you change the contract with Global Tel Link and end these fees. Please encourage reading in prison!”
It’s also important to stay informed. Here are a couple of resources if you’re interested in learning more:
- Dr. Rebecca Ginsburg (Education Justice Project), Dr. Katy Ryan (APBP), Jodi Lincoln (Book ‘Em), and Michelle Dillon (Human Rights Defense Center and Books to Prisoners), “High Tech, Low Accountability: How Do We Fight Back Against Prison Tablets and Prison Censorship?,” 2019 National Conference of Higher Education in Prison
- Michael Walters, “The Outrageous Scam of “Free” Tablets for the Incarcerated,” The Outline
- Tonya Riley, “‘Free’ Tablets Are Costing Prison Inmates a Fortune,” Mother Jones
Together, we can fight this predatory contract.
Support the Appalachian Prison Book Project
At APBP, we rely on donations and volunteers to provide books and educational opportunities to people on the inside. Get involved today to help us continue challenging mass incarceration.
Note: An earlier version of this post described the WVDCR’s 5% commission as follows: “This kickback will give the state incentive to restrict print books, in-person visits, and educational opportunities even further.” On December 13, 2019, we changed that text: “This kind of commission has, in other states, led to efforts to restrict books, in-person visits, and educational opportunities even further.”