Charging for the right to read: who really pays?

Access, Library Bill of Rights, Prison Libraries

By: Lisa Hoover

Hands on a fence.

West Virginia is reportedly offering “free” tablets to inmates at several prisons, which can be used to “read books, send emails, and communicate with their families” – for a charge, according to CJ Ciaramella at

“Any inmates looking to read Moby Dick may find that it will cost them far more than it would have if they’d simply gotten a mass market paperback, because the tablets charge readers by the minute,”

Ciaramella argues

The report says inmates will be charged 3 cents per minute to read books, even though the books are supplied by Project Gutenberg for free. The charge is bumped up to a quarter per minute for video “visitation” or written messages. It’s 50 centers to send a photo with a message. 

For context, prison wages were between 4 cents and 58 cents an hour in 2017. If my math is correct, that means an hour’s work will let an inmate read for about 20 minutes. To look at it another way, I decided to see how much it might cost to read some popular novels. Using audible for reading length, I determined it would cost about $14.95 to read Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone (about 26 hours worth of inmate work); $34.29 to read Michelle Obama’s Becoming (59 hours of inmate work); $17.43 to read Donald Trump Jr.’s Triggered (30 hours of inmate work); $14.97 to read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential (about 26 hours of inmate work); and $28 to read Ready Player One (48 ½ hours of inmate work). 

I have examined prisoner’s right to read for the OIF blog before, but in the context of censorship, rather than cost. As I cited then, “The American Library Association, in an interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights, argues that there is a “compelling public interest in the preservation of intellectual freedom for individuals of any age held in jails, prisons, detention facilities, juvenile facilities” and other places of incarceration, citing Procunier v. Martinez (1974): “When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor is his quest for self-realization concluded. If anything, the needs for identity and self-respect are more compelling in the dehumanizing prison environment.

I won’t rehash the 1st Amendment aspect – you can see my old post here – but I will reiterate that prisoners still have a right to read, subject to security concerns. I’ll also reiterate my statement that part of the purpose of prison is supposed to be rehabilitation, and reading can further that goal. 


It’s important to note that this tablet program does not mean the agency is restricting purchases or donations of print books – they aren’t. However, the Project Gutenberg library contains more than 60,000 public domain texts – probably a lot more than the average prison library. This means there is now an access model based on financial situation. For inmates whose families can afford it, they get the top tier access to the whole Gutenberg library. For the inmates whose families can’t, they’re limited to what the library has in print. 

And what about accessibility? Prisoners age 50 and older were the fastest growing population in federal prisons in 2015, according to The Washington Post’s Sari Horwitz. An aging population means aging eyes, and aging eyes may have trouble reading print books. Likewise, in 2011-12 about 40 percent of female inmates and 31 percent of men in prison reported a disability – 7.1% of inmates reported a vision related disability. The ability to zoom-in on a tablet would be useful for this population and is, I would argue, an accessibility right that should not be reserved only for the inmates who can afford it. 

Ultimately, when it comes to a fundamental right like reading, all prisoners should have equal access regardless of ability to pay. As I have argued before, reading can play an important role in educating and rehabilitating those prisoners who want to reform. When we place barriers to information between prisoners and rehabilitation, I would argue that they aren’t the only ones who pay – we all do. 


Lisa Hoover

Lisa Hoover is a Public Services Librarian at Clarkson University and an Adjunct Professor in criminal justice at SUNY Canton. In addition to her MLS, Lisa holds a JD and an MA in political science. She began her career as an editor and then manager for a local news organization, adjunct teaching in her “spare time.” She teaches courses in criminal procedure, criminal law and constitutional law. She is passionate about 1st Amendment issues. She recently began her career as a librarian, starting at Clarkson University in June 2017 teaching information literacy sessions and offering reference services. Lisa and her husband Lee live in Norwood, New York with their cats Hercules, Pandora and Nyx and pug-mix Alexstrasza (Alex). Find her on Twitter @LisaHoover01.

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