During the Cost of Reading in Prisons: Book Censorship and E-Reader Tablets In Carceral Institutions, a panel of advocates for prison inmates outlined the struggle to provide incarcerated people with access to reading materials—as well as the benefits and mounting challenges facing the introduction of digital reading devices into prisons.

The online panel, a wide-ranging, often moving discussion sponsored by PEN America and held earlier this month, outlined the sad and familiar punitive scenario faced by incarcerated people around the country: growing restrictions on the ability of prison inmates to receive physical books; the banning of physical mail, postcards, children's drawings, and, due to Covid-19, even visits from friends and family. Indeed, panelists pointed out how efforts to prevent the spread of Covid in prisons has exacerbated the situation, further isolating inmates from the outside world that they will eventually rejoin.

Anthony Johnson, PEN America research and advocacy manager for initiatives on prison book bans, moderated the panel, offering a quote from scholar/activist Angela Davis to open the online session. “What kind of Democracy do we want or do we inhabit?” Johnson asked, quoting Davis. Johnson pointed to censorious restrictions enacted by state corrections departments and state legislatures: “How do you make the case for access when state legislatures don’t require it?” He emphasized that “democracy is defined by what is denied to people in prison” in relation to those outside.

In response, Cynthia Simons, formerly incarcerated and now a women’s fellow at the Texas Center for Justice and Equity, said that “just because a person is in prison, they are no less human than us; incarceration is supposed to rehabilitate and give them the tools to survive when they get out.” Simons said that 81% of the women in prison “are mothers who have endured significant trauma. They need books on trauma, history, and works on peace and healing, and we’re limiting the tools that can help them.”

But the reality of incarceration and rehabilitation is quite different according to Jodi Lincoln, an organizer with the Pittsburgh Prison Book Project. Lincoln outlined how PPBP and other Pennsylvania-based prison book advocates fought against a 2018 statewide ban preventing organizations from sending physical books to inmates, a measure based on what she called dubious safety concerns. (Even before that ban, prisons would not accept books sent from family or friends.) The new restrictions, Lincoln said, were aimed at preventing contraband from entering prisons, and that were accompanied by claims that drug-saturated paper books were sickening prison personnel—claims Lincoln described as “hysteria.”

“We pushed back through the community and through the media and got the policy reversed,” she said. Nevertheless, books and mail must still be sent to a third-party location to be scanned. Lincoln cited a possible solution to providing access: the use of e-readers and tablets. “E-readers can be fantastic way to expand access to all kinds of education opportunities,” she said. Unfortunately, she was quick to note, in many cases for-profit technology companies, in partnership with prison officials, are undermining this utility.

Panelist Lawrence Bartley is the founder of News Inside, a print publication distributed in 721 prisons in 43 states, and of Inside Story, a video version, offered at 340 prisons in 35 states. Both platforms offer news and information on criminal justice and family issues and, he said, “help incarcerated people stay connected” with the outside world. He outlined the issues undermining the use of e-readers and tablets in prisons, noting in particular that two major for-profit edtech companies (with “bad reputations”) represent “60%-80% of the business and dominate the prison e-reader market.”

These companies, Bartley explained, can charge inmates as much as $150 for a device (inmates are often paid as little as 10 cents per hour for prison work), while other companies may offer the devices for free (to the state and to the inmates) but charge exorbitant rates for content. He decried companies for “price gouging,” including charging excessive rates to send email via the tablets and setting outrageous prices for content (“$50 to watch a movie”), and alleged that they have sometimes compromised attorney-client privilege by recording conversations between inmates and their lawyers. And much like efforts to restrict certain kinds of physical books, some state legislatures are banning digital access to books on race and history.

While Bartley acknowledged that there are tech firms trying to address and reform bad practices, he said that such firms represent only about 3% to 4% of the prison e-reader marketplace. He cited the need to attract nonprofit tech firms to the prison e-reader market. Lincoln added: “We need better telecom behavior. For-profit players are in control of this market, but their decisions are not in the best interest of inmates. There need to be better actors.”

Despite these problems, Bartley said inmates desperately want tablets. “Prison is a dark place: the food is bad, there are limited visits from the outside, and there is a lack of clothing and basic needs. But incarcerated people really need tablets; they want any kind of content they can get despite the problems.” And, he emphasized, that means not just educational content.

Lincoln echoed Bartley. “People want to read for pleasure as well as education. Trade books, novels, and mysteries are important,” she said. Simons added that “people in prison would rather read books and write letters than go outside of their cells for rec time.”

“Inmates in Texas can’t receive written physical letters or children’s drawings even though research shows that family ties are proven to reduce recidivism,” said Simons. “We need to get ahead of these bad policies. We need to advocate for incarcerated people and educate the public that we need to treat people with dignity.”