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Group: Don’t charge prisoners for tablet use

CHARLESTON — An effort to provide tablets for inmates in state prisons will cost taxpayers no money, but it will cost inmates for access to electronic books, email and other services, raising concerns of one group working to provide educational services to inmates.

In an Oct. 25 press release, the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced that 10 state prison facilities will get 867 electronic tablets provided to the state by Global Tel Link.

According to a Feb. 25 letter sent from GTL to Betsy Jividen, commissioner of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the company asked to expand the tablet program to other facilities after a successful five-month pilot program at the St. Marys Correctional Facility in Pleasants County.

The tablets give inmates access to email, music, books, movies and the ability to visit with family through video chat. The devices also include limited website access to educational services, news, sports, career help, health and wellness, legal and finance advice, and entertainment. All apps and websites are approved by the division and monitored by GTL’s wireless network.

“The tablets give inmates the incentive to behave and follow the rules, so they don’t lose this privilege,” said J.T. Binion, regional director for the division. “They have given inmates an opportunity to visit with family and friends who are not able to make it to the facility. It allows their children to have more contact with them. This has seemed to improve inmate morale overall.”

The tablet service is part of GTL’s inmate banking contract with the state and provided at no additional cost to the state. But the program is not without its costs to inmates. While some apps are free, other apps the inmates will have to pay for, including electronic books.

GTL is charging as low as 5 cents per minute for paid apps with the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation receiving a 5 percent commission on the 5 cents per minute app fee. Video visitation and instant messaging cost 25 cents per minute, while accessing other content — such as e-books — will cost 5 cents per minute.

According to the Morgantown-based Appalachian Prison Book Project, the e-books available on the GTL tablets are from Project Gutenberg, which archives books that become available after U.S. copyright has expired. The e-books are free, but the GTL app used to access the book, once a discount is applied, charges inmates 3 cents per minute to read the book. Classic books include works by Jack London, Herman Melville, Jules Verne, and many others.

“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,” according to a report published Nov. 20 by the Appalachian Prison Book Project. “The per-minute tablet usage fees provide a clever way for GTL to profit from people reading ‘free’ books.”

Lawrence Messina, a spokesperson for the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, said in an email he wished the Appalachian Prison Book Project had reached out before going on the offensive against the tablet project. While the GTL tablets do charge inmates for certain app usage, Messina said inmates still have access to all the non-tablet services they had before, including physical books.

“We’ve been very disappointed that this group failed to discuss its concerns with us before launching its disinformation campaign, has refused to acknowledge or address falsehoods in its allegations, and as a consequence has misled well-intentioned people about this program,” Messina said.

Messina said inmates can still request books and related materials for free or even access the prison library. State prisons can still accept donated books and reading materials.

No inmate has to use the tablets, and family can contribute money toward the inmate bank accounts for use of the tablets. Messina also points out that the 5 percent commission proceeds will go to a fund to benefit the inmates.

“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,” Messina said. “We have heard ‘nothing’ from this group’s leaders after pointing out their errors and asking why they’ve not sought to talk with us.”

A request for comment from the Appalachian Prison Book Project was not returned.

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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