The West Virginia Penitentiary, which was shuttered in 1995, is now considered a tourist attraction (via Taber Andrew Bain’s Flickrstream)

If you’re not already on board with the ways in which for-profit prisons are a moral and civic affront and the outrageous and racially-biased incarceration rate in the United States amounts to a new form of slavery, I’m not sure what might convince you, but try this on for size: prisons in West Virginia are introducing a new e-literacy initiative that will charge prisoners to read.

According to a report by, the plan is to offer inmates at West Virginia prisons access to “free” electronic tablets, and then charge for their use. The contract, administrated by Global Tel Link (GTL) in 10 West Virginia prisons, and detailed by Appalachian Prison Book Project, offers tablet use at $0.05 per minute (with an introductory rate discounted to $0.03) to read books, listen to music, or play games; $0.25 per minute for video visitations; $0.25 per written message; and $0.50 to send a photo with a message. Based on information tabulated by Prison Policy Initiative in 2017, wages in West Virginia prisons range between $0.04 and $0.58 an hour, meaning a single minute of screen time might be commensurate with an hour of an inmate’s insultingly underpaid labor.

The United States currently boasts the largest prison population in the world, as well as the highest incarceration rate per capita. The introduction of privatized prisons in the 1980s as a way of meeting demand driven by racist Reagan-era policies added a profit motive to system that had previously, at least in theory, prioritized rehabilitation over quarterly earnings. In fact, rehabilitation is unprofitable in the prison business, so why would it want to make resources available to help inmates get degrees, assist in their own legal defense, or have viable options upon release? The impact of incarceration on earning potential was summarized in a devastating 2010 Pew Research study, but why wait until people are out of prison to start screwing them out of their meager paychecks? That’s clearly the question on the mind of Global Tel Link and the West Virginia prison system.

But hey, GTL is providing content, some 60,000 e-books on these tablets, so surely the money they are charging goes toward defraying that cost, right? Nope! All the tablets are running books available for free through Project Gutenberg. You just know whichever morally bankrupt GTL executive came up with that one is high-fiving himself all the way to the Corvette dealership. Stealing labor for content AND labor for readership! If the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future are available, I’ve got some ideas for who they should be visiting this coming Christmas.

Appalachian Book Project (APBP) also notes that “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.”

While the tablets being introduced at the 10 correctional centers are being met with anticipation for their potentional to enhance communication with loved ones and increase access to entertainment media, it is impossible to view the arrangement from the outside with anything but anger and disdain at the ways that the cultural prioritization of profits over basic human decency continues to rot our society at its fundament. I guess on one point, they have it right: there’s no need for access to fictional dystopian narratives anymore. Such ideas are no longer in the realm of science fiction, but a grim statement of fact.

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...