Books helped me get through life sentence. Fees rob others of benefit.

Books in 2017 on their way to a prison in Texas from a nonprofit group in Salt Lake City, Utah, called Books Inside, founded by Toby Lafferty.

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Last year, West Virginia contracted with a company, Global Tel Link (GTL), to provide free tablets to prisoners. These kinds of initiatives are rapidly becoming more popular, as states grapple with the legacy of four decades of tough-on-crime policies and renewed public calls for more rehabilitative prisons.

And it sounds great. Until inmates realize the company charges users every time they use the tablets, including 25 cents a page for emails and 3 cents a minute to read e-books. By that calculation, most inmates would end up paying about $15 for each novel or autobiography they attempt to read. To people who have little to no money, that’s not a benefit. That’s exploitation. The only beneficiary, aside from Global Tel Link, is West Virginia, which receives 5% of the profits

GTL isn’t alone in profiting off of prisoners. Exploitation of prisoners for profit is cropping up more and more across the criminal justice landscape.

JPay, which is owned by Securus Technologies, charges inmates to make calls, send emails and listen to music and audiobooks. In some states, Edovo (Education Over Obstacles) has charged inmates to rent tablets

Books in 2017 on their way to a prison in Texas from a nonprofit group in Salt Lake City, Utah, called Books Inside, founded by Toby Lafferty.

Many prisons now ban in-person visits, then allow companies to charge $12.99 or more for video calls. Prison phone calls can cost up to $3.99 a minute. Prison shoes fall apart within weeks, and replacements are only available from a special catalog. Only sweatshirts are provided for the winter. Meals are nutritionally insufficient and, over time, must be supplemented to maintain good health.

All these necessities — shoes, jackets, phone calls, canned tuna from the commissary — rack up fees well above the market rate on the outside. But they often aren’t paid for by prisoners, who have little or no means to earn income. They are paid primarily by families who are often among our poorest. This hidden tax drives already vulnerable communities deeper into poverty and hopelessness.

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