Squeezing prisoners for profit

I have written before about how US prison systems are being used to squeeze prisoners and their families for money, by forcing them to use services provided by private for-profit companies for things that could be done far more cheaply using standard methods. One system is to force families to send letters and cards and photographs to prisoners only through dedicated electronic means that are far more expensive than the postal service. Another is forcing prisoners to buy music only through their expensive dedicated systems and players. The prisons get a cut of the revenues.

Now comes yet another such scheme. I, like many others, have sent books to prisoners as a way of making their confinement less miserable and you would think that a prison system would welcome this as part of the rehabilitation process. But Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections is taking away the ability for people to send free books to prisoners.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections is planning to ban free book donations to inmates by mail, claiming that this is a “primary avenue for drugs” to enter prisons. But the move coincides with a renewed push to get prisoners buying into a pricey prison eBook system that offers low-end tablets for $150 and eBooks no cheaper than $3 a read.

“Effective immediately, the DOC will begin to transition to ebooks coupled with bolstered DOC library system featuring centralized purchasing and ordering process,” the DOC announced at its website. “No books or publications will be shipped directly to an inmate. … [we] will no longer accept books donated directly to individual inmates.”

The tablet devices hawked by the DOC are bulky and low-end, with tiny low-definition color displays not intended for reading at length, rudimentary hardware and translucent materials to prevent them being used to hide contraband. They cost $147 plus tax, about three times the price of the only extant consumer device, the $50 Amazon Fire, with similar specifications. There is no repair service: any problems with the device and you have to buy a new one.

The rationale that the old book donation system was being used to transmit drugs, let alone that it was the ‘primary avenue’ for doing so, is palpably bogus. Every package sent to a prisoner is checked and it would be the easiest thing in the world to ensure that a book does not contain drugs.

The US has to be the world leader in finding new ways to use the legal system squeeze poor people and prisoners for money. It is little wonder that it has the highest incarceration rates in the world, by a huge margin. It is an utter disgrace.


  1. jrkrideau says

    The rationale that the old book donation system was being used to transmit drugs, let alone that it was the ‘primary avenue’ for doing so, is palpably bogus. Every package sent to a prisoner is checked and it would be the easiest thing in the world to ensure that a book does not contain drugs.

    Ah the innocent!

    It should be easy to use a book to transmit drugs. One could replace some of the glue or soak drugs into the paper. If you were determined, you recruit a bookbinder, cache some drugs in the covers and rebind the book. Minute quantities of fentynal might be sent in as the equivalent of WWII microdots. I imagine there are many, many more ways.

    If the books are being sent to a general pool, if “your” inmate knows the title, etc, of the book or some “secret mark” on the book, it would not take long for a prisoner to locate whoever had it and do a deal.

    There is also the matter of the safety of the guards. Particularly with fentynal, though there may well be others, the dangerous or lethal dose seems to be tiny.

    I live in the prison capital of Canada. Last year we had at least one incident where two guards checking incoming mail were hospitalized in serious condition from contaminated mail. They had thought that they were taking appropriate precautions.

    There may well have been many more, less serious incidents that would not make the local news.

    Inmates, typically, do not have a lot to do, so they can spend huge amounts of time chewing on a problem. There are a lot of very smart inmates, some of whom will have little formal education which may help them find ingenious solutions to problems as they are not bound by more conventional assumptions and thinking patterns.

    I do not know if it has ever been done but I can see inmates forming seminars and working groups to work on various aspects of drug importing. Think of “The Great Escape” in reverse.

    I am reminded of the story of the Bell Laboratory engineers, back in the 1950’s or 1960’s, who spent two years or so designing and building a pay telephone that inmates could not vandalize. The pilot-test phone lasted six days in the prison.

    Years ago I spend two years working in a provincial correctional centre as a cook. I remember one of the officers describing to me how they had to be careful about saran wrap on the ranges. If one compressed enough saran wrap into a “very” dense ball and rammed it into a lock, you could light the saran and blow the lock.

    I find it difficult to believe that the books are the ‘primary avenue’ but given the advances in modern pharmacology that could be true. Does anyone here know if one could soak a page of a book in crystal meth and reconstitute it inside?

    This, though, has nothing to do with the fact that it looks like the replacement idea is a very corrupt scheme to exploit the inmates, especially the Ebook costs.

    Humm, it just occurs to me that the horrible tablet may be the only thing that matches security needs. It still sounds crooked but it is possible.

    I remember three or four years ago a friend of mine had a cousin who was moving from medium security to “almost out” , I forget the correct term.

    He would be able to leave the institution on his own every day but if he wanted a cell-phone, it could not have a camera--who knows why?

    It is not easy to find a cell phone without a camera in Canada . My friend’s solution was to have someone pick her up a camera--less phone in Kabul but this would not be an option for a lot of people.

  2. petern says

    Sad but true. I have a number of pen-pals in prisons and I understand that the stamps are removed from the envelopes their mail comes in, because drugs can be concealed underneath.

    As for how to consume meth from meth-soaked paper — just suck on it! [So I understand.] In fact contaminated filter paper is a byproduct of manufacturing meth, and running Coca-Cola through the paper is a “cheap high”.

    Tangentially, let me recommend the Center For Inquiry’s prison pen-pal program for anyone who can spare a little time to make a huge difference to atheists in prison.

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