Incarcerated Pennsylvanians Now Have to Pay $150 to Read

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The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) recently created rules replacing access to hard copies of books and other reading materials with e-books.

According to the new decision, “books and publications, including legal primers and prison newsletters, cannot be sent directly to incarcerated Pennsylvanians,” per an article by the Washington Post.

If prison inmates wish to have access to a book, they are now required to purchase a tablet worth $147 plus tax, and also pay a private firm — selected by the Department of Corrections — to get the electronic versions of the books that they want to read. Nonprofit organizations are no longer allowed to provide free reading material to inmates.

Incarcerated people are paid less than $1 per hour, and the criminal-justice system disproportionately locks up low-income individuals.

In a recent report, Quartz wrote that the e-books will cost “anywhere from $3 to $25 per download,” and many of the books available through the propriety system are much more expensive than their normal market prices. Even after paying this hefty sum of money, prisoners will only be able to choose from the available titles that the new private e-book system offers.

The recent ban on books was allegedly part of security measures that aim to limit the flow of contraband drugs into Pennsylvania’s prisons. A report by the Philadelphia Inquirer, however, found that the DOC exaggerated the problem in order to push the deal through with the private e-book company.

“This policy, part of a larger trend of censorship in state prisons around the country, should alarm everyone. Not only does it erect a huge financial barrier to books and severely restrict content, it also dehumanizes people in prison.”  — Jodi Lincoln, co-chair of Book ’Em, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization that sends free reading material to incarcerated people and prison libraries.

By using their time in prison to prepare for reentry into society, incarcerated people have a greater chance at living a productive life and their time in prison is enhanced through reading as a form of self-improvement. Books-to-prison organizations also offer inmates connections with the outside world, as people request books over and over again, often sending personal updates, drawings and sharing their stories. These connections cannot be replicated by e-books or ordering a specific book through the DOC.

Judson ParkerComment