Pa. prisons sell inmates eBooks via private contractor, but they can be expensive

In late August following a prison lockdown, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections halted book donations from organizations as well as inmates’ families and friends Now, the DOC is letting book donation groups communicate with inmates, and family and friends can buy books directly through publishers. (StudioDin/BigStock)

In late August following a prison lockdown, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections halted book donations from organizations as well as inmates’ families and friends Now, the DOC is letting book donation groups communicate with inmates, and family and friends can buy books directly through publishers. (StudioDin/BigStock)

After concerns that inmates were receiving drugs along with their literature, Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections is in the middle of overhauling the way inmates get books.

In late August following a prison lockdown, book donations from organizations such as Books through Bars were halted. Inmates’ families and friends also were barred from sending reading material.

In the interim, the department has touted its new eBook system — officially launched Sept. 25 — as a way that inmates can easily access books.

However, the DOC has no control over prices — and the eBooks can be expensive.

The eBook system is run through telecom company Global Tel Link, which also supplies the tablets inmates can buy through the commissary for $147, plus tax.

Inmates can choose from 8,500 eBooks, and the DOC says it’s working to expand that list. But — at least for the term of the department’s contract with the company — prices are fixed. They range from $2.99 to $24.99 and can be significantly higher than prices for books outside prisons.

The Federalist Papers, for instance, is in the public domain and can be easily found for free. In state prisons, the a collection of 85 articles and essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay costs $11.99.

A spokesman for Global Tel Link said prices are sometimes higher as a result of the company’s business model. He declined to give a more detailed explanation, citing competitive reasons.

A release on the company’s website touts tablet services as being possible because of “inmates paying for the services they want.” Therefore, it continues, “in almost every instance, these tablets come at no cost to taxpayers.”

A spokeswoman for the DOC noted that inmates can also use libraries and buy books through the department.

She said 16,000 inmates have tablets out of about 45,000 total. So far, she said, they have downloaded more than 3,000 books.

It’s still not clear when the moratorium on book donations and gifts will end — though the department estimated it would take about 60 to 90 days from the initial lockdown.

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