How a trend toward cost-cutting in prisons reveals the cruel impulse to profit from human misery
by Rory Fleming
The general idea of US prison policy seems to be to make life as miserable as possible for people behind bars without violating bedrock constitutional principles from the 1700s. On first glance, recent moves toward technological “updates”—in the form of “free” tablets to enable incarcerated people to read—appear to buck that trend. But prison accountability specialists say we should take heed of how this move represents a mix of cost-cutting for prison agencies, profiteering on human misery, and a conspiracy to get prisoners to stop reading.
The West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DRC) is the most recent prison to take the plunge, opting for prisoners to pay a nickel per minute to read e-books on the devices provided. Given that people make less than $1 an hour for their labor behind bars, it’s a prohibitive cost for many. But the contract between GTL (Global Tel*Link Corporation) and the DCR makes sure to award the prison agency a 5 percent commission on fees.
Michelle Dillon at the Human Rights Defense Center told Filter that the West Virginia DRC has pointed to the Inmate Benefit Fund to justify charging people for public domain books, echoing earlier claims that similar phone fees are not going back to the prisons themselves. Records show that the same fund is also being used to pay for the employment of people in prison, and for portable toilets, showerheads, microwaves, copiers, fans, religious meals, clocks, and even electricity.
In general terms, national momentum appears to be moving in a positive direction on prisoners working to empower themselves through education. Even the Trump administration supports bringing back Pell Grant eligibility for higher education loans to people in prison. (Pell Grants were taken away from prisoners as a result of the 1994 crime bill that presidential candidate Joe Biden has been slammed for supporting.)
But prison agencies at both the state and federal are well-known for thwarting even the most tepid criminal justice reform legislation—unless compliance is forced by law with no discretion afforded to them. The US judiciary, up to the Supreme Court level, generally gives prison chiefs carte blanche to abuse their wards at will. Financial and data-collection exploitation of prisoners and their loved ones is already common regarding e-visits and phone calls.
Short of explicit legislation to guarantee free access, tablets-only rules will further exploit prisoners financially—and reduce access both to important educational materials and to the recreational reading that may mitigate the misery of life behind bars.
Besides the profit motive, prisons have numerous incentives for adopting the tablet system. They are harder to get physically creative with than books, as Deputy Warden Troy Schultz of the North Dakota State Penitentiary noted in 2015: “In the past we had cassette players and CD players. The motors from these were used to make tattoo guns. There’s less material for staff to search through now.”
Adopting a tablets-only policy can also shield guards from embarrassment and bad press when they smuggle drugs into prisons. In Pennsylvania, Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel recently shut down paper book donation charities, citing alleged drug smuggling by friends and family of prisoners. An outcry later caused Wetzel, an alleged prison “reformer” who claims he wants more humane, Norweigan-style prisons, to reverse course. Shortly thereafter, it was exposed that his own employees had created the issue.
Racism obviously factors into the denial of reading materials for incarcerated people. US prisoners are too often lorded over by racist guards (some in West Virginia were recently photographed giving a Nazi salute). With a population that is roughly 3.6 percent Black, West Virginia has a wildly disproportionate 28 percent of Black prisoners.
There is a similar story in Pennsylvania, where 12 percent of the state population but 46 percent of prisoners are Black. Secretary Wetzel’s entire reputation as a “reformer” and “thought leader” in prison policy hinges on his claims that he runs an “evidence-based” prison system. Having a research and statistics division led by someone with a doctorate permits Wetzel to evade questions about barely putting a dent in the number of people subject to solitary confinement from 2014 to 2017, complaining that a prison closure would be bad for staff, and propagandizing that the installation of a few couches makes one of his prisons like a “Little Scandinavia.”
Sadly, Wetzel’s data chief, Dr. Krisofer “Bret” Bucklen, has previously declared crime “genetic.” Screenshots of Dr. Bucklen’s Twitter account from years ago show him laughing at jokes declaring Michelle Obama a transgender ape, as well as him boasting of his close friendship with blacklisted criminologist Brian Boutwell. Boutwell believes Black people have inherently lower IQs and a higher propensity for crime, including violent crime. In one of his shocking academic articles, Boutwell wrote that higher arrest and incarceration rates for Black boys and men were “completely accounted for after including covariates for self-reported lifetime violence and IQ.”
If someone like Bucklen wants to believe that imprisoned people are naturally unintelligent and less capable, keeping them from reading is excellent confirmation bias. But such a person should not be surprised when he or she is called a racist. Anti-literacy policy has long and appalling history in the US; laws in the 1800s forbade free people from teaching Black slaves how to read and write.
What is happening today comes from comparable impulses. Prison officials in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and other states prioritize maintaining order at the cost of creating a maximally degraded prison population.
They do not want the self-actualization of more people like Reginald Dwayne Betts, who was imprisoned as a Black teenage boy and went on to become a Yale Law School-educated attorney and world-renowned poet. Neither do they even want it for white prisoners, like Shon Hopwood, a former bank robber-turned-Georgetown Law Professor. Betts’ and Hopwood’s individual manifestations of greatness despite soul-crushing conditions undermine a prison system organized around both control and failure of current and former prisoners.
There is no way any prisons chief in the country can deny this indictment without facing copious evidence against their position. They all know. Some might own up to it when asked, like when North Dakota Director of Corrections Leann Bertsch cried during a Norweigan prison tour and told a deputy, “We’re hurting people.”
Citing politics as an insurmountable obstacle to meaningful change, as Director Bertsch and Secretary Wetzel both did to Maurice Chammah at The Marshall Project, is cynical and lazy. While authorties cannot release people earlier for reading books, like Brazil’s penal system does, they can at least aggressively push their legislatures on decarceration initiatives. They can cite cost as the reason, if they need to. They can make reading free for all and readjust budgets by laying off unnecessary employees.
We should demand that they do all of the above.