The Other 95%

For the past six weeks, APBP volunteers have been working to understand the terms and implications of a contract signed by the WV Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation (WVDCR) with the private telecom company Global Tel Link (GTL). Our concern centers on the $0.05 per-minute usage fee that imprisoned people will need to pay if they want to read e-books on tablets provided by GTL in state prisons. These books include titles available online for free through Project Gutenberg. The WVDCR plans to phase the tablets into the regional jails as well.

On November 20, 2019, APBP posted an infographic on our Facebook page and invited people to contact the Commissioner and the Governor about the excessive costs associated with the tablet. Typically, our posts are shared a few times and liked by a dozen people—on a good day. This one was shared 2,000 times with a reach of 200,000. Our local effort coincided with mounting national impatience with private companies overcharging incarcerated people and their families for needed resources.

Representatives for WVDCR, in response to public concerns regarding the 5% commission it will receive from the gross revenue of GTL tablet usage fees, have been quick to point out that all commissions will go into an Inmate Benefit Fund (IBF). This fund “pays for things that benefit the entire inmate population such as open house visitation, recreational equipment, holiday dinners, and other opportunities that would not otherwise be available.” This arrangement does little to soften the blow of the current predatory pricing model.

Invoking IBFs as justifications for the exploitative terms of the current GTL contract, specifically the high per-minute rate GTL charges for reading Project Gutenberg e-books, is an attempt to downplay costs to individuals and profits to companies by overstating potential benefits to the prison community.

A Brief Look at WVDCR’s Inmate Benefit Fund

Each West Virginia prison or jail manages its own IBF. According to the West Virginia Code, “The inmate, or resident, benefit fund is a fund held by the institutions for the benefit and welfare of inmates incarcerated, or juveniles placed in facilities under the jurisdiction of the commissioner, and for the benefit of victims.”

Several revenue streams contribute to IBFs, including commissary and vending machine commissions, commissions from telecom services, funds confiscated from individuals for certain rules violations, and donations to the prison marked for funds benefiting the general population.

WV Code delineates 16 uses for IBFs, including many of the extras WVDCR highlights in press statements regarding GTL commissions, such as funding open-house visitations and holiday events as well as supplementing equipment and supplies for recreation areas, day rooms, and housing units. The funds are also used to pay for entertainment services—such as Cable TV, movie rentals, and video licensing fees. IBFs can be tapped for “restitution of any negative balance on any inmate’s trustee account” if the balance has not been paid within one year of the person’s release date.

IBF uses extend beyond paying for holiday parties, gym equipment, and movies. The funds can also be used to pay for everyday essentials: reimbursement of prison labor wages, the maintenance of automated notification systems for families and victims, and the “installation, operation, and maintenance” of the telephone system. The IBF also can go toward post-secondary education classes.

IBFs are the primary funding source for reading materials for West Virginia prison and jail libraries. Theoretically, these libraries could benefit from the GTL-WVDCR tablet contract. But the scale of potential benefit does not match the high costs to individuals and their families.

Reading materials in prison libraries are already funded by the exorbitant pricing of commissary items and phone calls, meaning the libraries are already supplemented by the wages and monies of incarcerated people and their families. As Michelle Dillon of the Human Rights Defense Center put it, “If people don’t eat enough hot Cheetos, no new library books.”

Of the $1.80–3.00 per hour people are charged to read public domain books on GTL tablets, .09–.15 cents will go towards the IBF, a fraction of which might be allocated to the prison library. Regardless, it is unfair to charge by the minute to read public domain books, even if a small percentage of the profits, in some prisons, might be used to buy books for libraries.

The Tip of the Iceberg

Importantly, the focus on IBFs obscures the flow of the 95%—the money that moves directly from incarcerated people and their families to a multi-million-dollar company that dominates the prison telecom industry.

As yet, there are no best practices for the adoption of prison tablets, and private companies are setting the terms. The Prison Policy Initiative wrote with regard to phone contracts:

“It is well within the power of both prisons and jails to negotiate for low phone rates for incarcerated people, by refusing to accept kickbacks (i.e. commissions) from the provider’s revenue and by striking harder bargains with the providers. And many state prisons have done so: Illinois prisons, notably, negotiated for phone calls costing less than a penny a minute.”

It took a national campaign to begin to address the overpriced cost of prison phone calls. The same is needed for tablets.

Consumer protection is not easily extended to those in prison, even though they are in a particularly vulnerable position. The GTL contract in WV (and in Colorado), for instance, allows the company to change pricing at its discretion. Imprisoned people do not have the option to find a better deal.

In a recent article on consumer law and “literally captive markets,” Steve Raher writes,

“One might expect policymakers to be receptive to the idea of enhanced protections for a group of consumers with such pronounced disadvantages; however, this is not the case when it comes to incarcerated people. Although families and friends of the incarcerated have made substantial progress in the last two decades, policy debates on the rights of the incarcerated are still dominated by stereotypes and prejudices that stack the deck against the establishment of new rights and safeguards.”

Prison book projects are committed to ensuring that incarcerated people have equal access to information and education, regardless of income. APBP is building partnerships with allied organizations, and we have been strengthened by the remarkable support we’ve received. We are honored to be part of a larger movement to protect the rights of imprisoned people to read and to learn.

We have reached out to WVDCR to discuss ways to move forward.

Additional Resources

American Library Association, “Prisoners’ Right to Read,” 2010 (amended 2019).

Stephen Raher, “The Company Store and the Literally Captive Market: Consumer Law in Prisons and Jails,Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal, 17.1, 2020.

UNESCO, “Books beyond bars: The transformative potential of prison libraries,” 2019.

Worth Rises, “Paying for Jail: How County Jails Extract Wealth from New York Communities“, 2019.

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.

By Valerie Surrett and Katy Ryan

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