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Encouraging W.Va. Prison, Jail Inmates to Read

On December 12, 2019, The Intelligencer reported the partnership between the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation and Global Tel Link. In this partnership, GTL will provide electronic tablets to inmates in state correctional facilities, and inmates may use the tablets to check email, facetime with family members, access multimedia, and read electronic books.

But there is a catch. GTL will charge inmates for these services. Inmates will pay between 3 and 25 cents per minute for the various apps made available to them on the tablets

In this deal, inmates will pay end up paying 3 cents per minute to access electronic books. This part of the deal is particularly galling because GTL charges for access to electronic books that come from the nonprofit, Project Gutenberg. PG’s stated mission is to freely distribute eBooks. Consequently, charging inmates to access the eBooks provided by PG runs counter this mission. In an article published online by Reason magazine, PG’s CEO expressed his dismay with WVDCR’s deal with GTL, but there was little the nonprofit could do stop the company from charging inmates.

An editorial published in The Intelligencer last month pointed out the ridiculousness of charging inmates to read. Reading, as the editorial noted, provides us with numerous benefits, and if reading provides us with numerous benefits, then the WVDCR should reduce the number of barriers to reading, not increase them.

For many, however, it makes sense to charge convicted criminals for the privilege of using an electronic tablet. Access to electronics should not be automatic, and inmates should earn the right to use the tablets. For proponents of the program, by paying for access to the tablets, inmates will learn a lesson about earning rewards and privileges.

Unfortunately, this lesson has an unintended consequence for inmates. It turns reading into a privilege.

An electronic tablet functions primarily as a connection device. The tablet connects individuals to the internet. The internet allows electronic devices to connect to other devices, allowing for the use of facetime, multimedia, and eBook apps. The tablet connects the user to servers and devices that house online databases and libraries, such as PG.

The nature of a correctional facility or penitentiary is to isolate criminals from the rest of society. The hope is that through isolation inmates will learn to correct behaviors so that they may return to society, or for those given life sentences, isolation is the punishment.

Since an electronic device provides a means of connection for those individuals that we intend to isolate, an electronic tablet, as a connecting device, will always be a privilege for the inmates, and in turn, what the inmates do with those electronic devices, including reading books, will be seen as a privilege.

When we view something as a privilege or an honor, we think that we can do without it. But reading should not be seen as a privilege or something that we can do without. Reading is essential to functioning in our society.

In the United States, collectively, we made two decisions that mark the centrality of reading to participation in society. First, we made attending school mandatory. By having everyone attend school, we ensure that we have a literate public. Second, we have a system of community and public libraries which allows every citizen to have access to reading material.

We are all taught to read and given access to reading material because reading cultivates the critical thinking necessary for full participation in democracy, the economy, and civic organizations.

If we want convicted criminals to productively participate in communities when they leave the penal system, then we should not encourage inmates to view reading as a privilege.

Instead, the state should do everything it can to promote reading as a daily habit, but even if the GTL did not charge for use of the tablet, the program would still undermine an inmate’s ability to develop reading habits.

Media scholar, Corey Anton, believes we are living in a time period in which there is a “general state of reading atrophy.” We have the ability to read, but we let this ability waste away. Yes, many of us constantly read text messages or social media feeds, but we spend less time doing the difficult reading demanded by books. What is the cause of this atrophy? Our access to forms of media which are easier to consume. In comparison to books, audio and video files are much easier for the tablet user to consume. As a result, we view reading books as difficult, hard, or, perhaps not worth the exertion.

Because an electronic tablet is a connection device, the connectivity of the device can entice the individual to do things other than read. Switching applications on a device is relatively easy. How often might an inmate start to read, then get distracted by other media made available to them by the tablet? The tablet allows the user to access different and easier media, and, in doing so, it actually encourages reading atrophy by allowing the user to consume the easier media.

A tablet is not a reading device; a physical book is a reading device. Unless you get really creative, the only thing you can do with a physical book is read it.

Therefore, if the state of West Virginia wants to promote reading among the inmate population, which they should, then the state should provide greater access to the best reading device out there — physical books.

Reading good books introduces us to different words, worlds, and, most important, new styles of thought. A good book shows us a world different from our own. A book provides value.

As a professor, I often hear my students complain about the rising cost of textbooks. When I introduce the course text at the beginning of the semester, the first question a student usually asks about the book is, “How much will the book cost me?” I would love it if students instead asked, “What will this book give me?” Books provide us with so many more benefits than costs.

By promoting tablet use, the WVDCR partnership with GTL will ensure that inmates will always ask about the cost of a book, in effort and money, before they ask about the value.

Ryan McCullough is an associate professor of communication at West Liberty University. His scholarly interests include the influence of communication technology on communication practices.

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