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E-books in a Correctional Setting: a niche market
By Judith Jordet, MLS
Published: 08/30/2010

E book My correctional supervisor is open to the use of new technology to solve problems and improve prison operations. One innovation was to hire me, a librarian with a master’s degree, to be a prison library coordinator. When I asked him why he hired me, he replied that during the interview I was aware that inmates in segregation will flush paperback books down the toilet in order to flood the cell. He continued, not only was I cognizant of that possibility, I suggested providing duplicate copies rather than only exposing the worst titles to that dreadful demise.

Two years after I was hired, the prison library had expanded to 6,000 donated books. Many titles had to be weeded and inventoried to diversify the collection so that it spread over 40 genres with Mystery, Suspense, Fantasy heavily weighted and Drama and Philosophy lightly weighted. My vision was to add 300 books to the “pod libraries” on each of the eight dormitory units. My supervisor’s vision was even greater. He suggested replacing paper books with e-books (except, of course, in segregation).

I immediately saw the advantage of e-books in the prison setting. If each inmate could have a library of over 1,000 titles in one small e-book reader, it would cut down on hiding contraband among the books (such as sandpaper to erase their uniform logo), remove the unsanitary habit of reading books in the rest-room, cut down on repairing books (averaging 20% or over 1,200 books destroyed each year), free up space by limiting the 3 X 8 foot long bookshelves that only hold 640 books for 100 inmates in each unit, encourage struggling readers to listen to a book while reading the text on the screen, and, finally, allow anyone to increase the size of the font so LARGE PRINT will never be limited to a few titles!

However, my research revealed problems that only a niche market can solve. I studied the Kindle, Sony and Nook e-book readers; all of them are equipped to access the Internet. I wish an e-book reader existed that only accessed the millions of legitimately published books (rather than anonymous individuals self-publishing on the Internet, not accountable to anyone even for spelling or grammar). Imagine an e-book reader that specialized in accessing books by title, author, subject, date, publisher, language, format (audio, digital) and/or keyword!

I called Amazon to see if it could sell Kindles to Corrections without direct access to Wikipedia. No, it is a package deal. Also, all three e-book readers include email and/or blogging. It is possible to provide email to inmates in some circumstances and maybe someday even the Internet, but providing Internet to an inmate along with two-way email is not an easy combination to supervise for public safety.

If I had my way, one of these e-book companies would be willing to test market e-book readers to the 969 minimum security prisons in the U.S. by offering ten e-book readers per institution for lease. Each e-book reader would be loaded with a core collection of 208 free titles (one title per week for four years, the approximate median sentence in Oregon's minimum security prisons). Imagine for example, these established authors…
  • Horror by Stephen King, Stephanie Meyers and Anne Rice…
  • Mystery by John Le Carre, all the Kellermans and John Lescroart, Steve Martini, Richard North Patterson, Lisa Scottoline, Scott Turow, Stuart Woods...
  • Suspense by Clive Cussler, Robert Ludlum, Robin Cook, Michael Crichton…
  • Fantasy by Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, Terry Brooks, Piers Anthony, David Eddings, David Gemmell, George R.R. Martin, Terry Pratchet, R.A. Salvatore…
  • African American fiction by Walter Mosely, Carl Weber and Octavia Butler…
  • Asian fiction from Haruki Murakami, Frank Chin and Ha Jin…
  • Latin fiction by Arturo Perez-Reverte, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Rudolfo Anaya…
  • Native American fiction by Sherman Alexie and Craig Lesley…

In addition to fiction novels, the e-book reader could include a dictionary, thesaurus, book of quotations, atlas of the world, almanac, time-line of history, resume book, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Spanish language and a book exploring careers that do not exclude felons.

After the first ten e-book readers are leased as a test market, expand the market by offering these niche market e-book readers for sale on commissary. Each e-book reader would cost the Department of Corrections (DOC) $189. The device could hold at least 1,460 titles (one title per day for four years). It could be sold on the commissary for less than an 8” digital television ($245). Then inmates could purchase additional e-book titles for $1.00 each from a bulk purchased by DOC of 4,000 popular titles in 47 different genres. Under supervision, inmates who qualify (including mandatory sentenced inmates) could shop once per week to purchase newer titles from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Any book prohibited by DOC could have a record of exactly what regulation justified the denial.

Also, imagine the collection development data. Without keeping track of inmate identity, it could be possible to survey inmate reading habits such as favorite authors, favorite genres and reading rate. I am not saying this is the best way to provide reading material, but it would also not be impossible, even with limited funding.

I am thankful to work for a supervisor with vision and openness to use new technology to solve problems and improve the lives of inmates. In times of significant budget cuts, prison library staff needs to think creatively about how best to encourage literacy in the inmate population. I envision a day when each inmate will have a library of 1,001 book titles stored in one e-book reader by their bunk, opening a window onto the world.

Editors Note: Corrections.com author Judith Jordet graduated with Masters of Library Science in 2000, she worked as a government documents librarian and taught Library Skills at Central Oregon Community College. In 2007 Jordet became the full time Library Coordinator in the Oregon Department of Corrections. 70% of her job is as a law librarian. She is also in charge of the general reading collection in eight "Pod Libraries", one for each unit in the Correctional Institution where she works. Her passion for inmate literacy motivates her to explore ways to promote to the correctional profession, the importance of managing a library among the inmate population, rather than merely supplying "books on shelves". She shares the perspective of Stanton Samenow on understanding chronic criminality and Mark Colvin on the importance of institutional pro-social support through the prison library.

Other articles by Jordet:


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  16. Karon on 10/01/2019:

    Wow, his is very cool. Very well written and clear to understand. Books can help everyone, including those behind bars. Karon click here

  17. Yakima on 09/28/2019:

    My friend used to manage a children's library before moving on to work with Yakima Pediatricians. He has since moved on again to work in adult health care, but he said that during his time at the library, he helped to update the system and adopt more ebooks and kindles, which definitely reduced the library's expenses over time. Reduced expenses meant a bigger bottom line, and more budget to make improvements to the library itself (rehab, rennovations, adding new wings, etc). The kids definitely appreciated the new playroom, and parents started bringing their children to spend more time in the library (which may result in higher literacy rates for the next generation). In short, it looks like adopting ebooks is our way of embracing a better future.

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  19. Adam Skinner on 09/21/2019:

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  36. maddy.morgan on 04/18/2019:

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  37. blevinstess on 12/16/2018:

    Ebooks are a great medium to teach people more about corrections. Books are great and even though I don't think they will ever be completed outdated, Ebooks are definitely much more convenient for those on the good and you are able to reach a bigger audience. Tess Manager @ Tree Service In Columbia

  38. Moriah on 01/22/2016:

    Most of the newer (2012-present) Kindle e-readers have Wifi-only access, not cellular access, to the Internet -- which means that a local BookNet could be set up without any access to the outside world, and Whispercast can be used to maintain the library on each device. I think there would be much less risk of a security breach. Donated devices, if they were wifi-only, could be used for piloting the project and testing security. But if Amazon isn't interested in the market, I'm sure some open source e-readers code could be modified for corrections use.

  39. Modbear on 01/20/2014:

    As a mother of an inmate, I can only hope and pray that somehow this will come to pass. My son is an avid reader and reading is the best way for him to learn and to pass his time constructively. He has been working on trying to get a degree while incarcerated. He seems to meet an obstacle at every turn. He wants to read everything he can and I can only afford so much towards helping him buy books. And like mentioned above the inmates cells are routinely cleaned out and books are limited.

  40. Airi138 on 07/29/2013:

    Isn't it possible to allow their family members to provide them reading files for their ereaders???

  41. liongold on 12/25/2012:

    Hello, I was very glad to read your post about ereaders for inmates. I have many times thought it would be such a great tool for inmates to expand their reading material. This would definitely create a market. I believe it would become more than just a niche market if you figure there are usually a half dozen or so immediate or close family members for every inmate. Family members are usually willing to spend a few dollars more for products on the inside for their loved ones when it comes to giving them constructive ways to spend their time. And to a very large percentage of inmates, reading is the most constructive act they do. Books make their existence much more bearable. I am the mother of an inmate in an Oklahoma prison. My son is an avid reader and is now taking correspondence paralegal courses. He would be thrilled to know he might someday have a way to store many books at his fingertips. I send him many book orders per year and he has to get rid of his book stash every so often due to space restriction. I spend a LOT of money on his books and if you multiply that by thousands, the need and market is already established and just waiting...no...bursting at the seams!!! to be expanded. It would be a "green" and profitable market since it would save paper(trees),shipping(fuel)and manufacturing(book binding)costs. Also, since ereaders usually handle many reading file formats (ie .txt,.pdf,.wps,.doc etc) the possibilities would be unlimited on self study educational, cognitive behavioral courses and literally thousands of other subject studies which might be developed for inmates. Inmates are hungry for HOPE. Reading gives inmates direction and motivation and that's the road to HOPE. I own 2 kindles and have many times thought about how wonderful it would be if my son could have one in his situation. I know that mp3 players are now available for inmates and are distributed along with song downloads through the canteen. I don't remember what I paid for his mp3 player but I believe it was a reasonable price. He buys songs for a dollar each. I see no reason why a modified ereader version couldn't be manufactured or an existing brand be partially disabled for inmate marketing in a similar manner. There is a national company that handles the distribution of the mp3 players and other inmate merchandise to prison canteens called SecureAccess. That might be a place to start with your marketing idea. As for email for prisoners, there should be prisoner "kiosks" set up for sending and receiving emails in which messages could be charged, managed and overseen by administration...but that's another market... I hope your ideas are read by the right people Ideas manifest implementation and implementation manifests fruition. So often nowadays inmates are so very much forgotten souls. Thank you so much in your interest in inmate reading. Thank you so very much for your positive interest in inmate reading.

  42. desertrose on 10/06/2011:

    Helen (big fan of slipknot t shirts at online band clothes store Thanks for this useful article, i am doing research now about this. Have read 2 times, was expressed author's own example: "I immediately saw the advantage of e-books in the prison setting. If each inmate could have a library of over 1,000 titles in one small e-book reader, it would cut down on hiding contraband among the books..." Nowadays, it is quite difficult to imagine our life without the e-book reader which includes a dictionary, thesaurus, book of quotations, atlas of the world, almanac, time-line of history, resume book, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Spanish language and a book exploring careers that do not exclude felons ect.

  43. Helssi on 08/16/2011:

    I'm in Australia working at the Australian Digital Futures Institute. We're looking at running an eBook reader trial for incarcerated students. I'd be really interested in chatting to anyone who has tried something similar elsewhere. I can be contacted at helen.farley@usq.edu.au.Thanks!

  44. ChinnoDog on 09/29/2010:

    This was an interesting article I found when trying to figure out how to get reading material to a friend of mine. It seems to me the barrier is not a technological one. How does one design an e-book reader for prisoners without knowing the politics of it? e.g. Why would you rent an e-book reader from the commissary if you could buy one? And, what is the administrative overhead associated with giving prisoners reading material? I can only assume outlet charging is not compatible with prisoner restrictions and that the administration would need to approve books. Or, maybe I have it all wrong and there are outlets and the administration doesn't care (or isn't allowed to control) what prisoners read. I'm an electronics major and could attempt this, but I don't understand the market that would buy it.

  45. Hawaii Bill on 09/13/2010:

    Aloha, Wondering if anyone knows where I might begin to search for formal, peer reviewed research specially on: "Mobile Devices Correctional Education" Research into mobile device use in mainstream education seems to be picking up steam ... is anyone working on mobile device use in correctional education settings? Mahalo for any feedback The e-book story above is heartwarming

  46. Librarian on 09/03/2010:

    Another update: Border's Bookstore has an eReader called KOBO that has no WiFi so it can not connect to an outside network. It comes with 200 pre-chosen (by Borders) classics and holds about 1,000 eBooks. The font can be enlarged for Large Print readers. The problem is that there is no way to re-charge the battery. The battery will last for two weeks and is the best on the market but for me that is a deal breaker.

  47. Librarian on 09/02/2010:

    After hearing from Todd Thornton from Kentucky, it looks like the Sony eBook is a better option in the corrections environment than the Kindle or Nook and deserves a second look: apparently the Sony can not send signals to the outside, only READ what is in the Sony eBook store and then only in AT&T coverage areas. What is considered a limitation in the commercial market could work very well for the corrections environment. Let’s say each minimum security institution receives only six Sony eBooks each. Purchased for $169.72 and rented on canteen for maximum rental price of $220.63 to the same inmate (to cover costs of setting this item up for rent), loaded (for example) with 200 titles of their choice out of 4,000 titles DOC makes available as an easy first time download to sweeten the deal. That would be a better deal than the televisions at $240 and $260 each. The eBook could also be rented for less than $20.00 per month as long as that inmate stays in the same institution. That way, they can not sue if it is damaged; they only lose the privilege of using it. Also, at $20.00 per month they can rent for a few months and purchase the complete Robert Jordan series (for example) downloaded from a dedicated PC once per week. If they purchase the series, they will still own the titles when they get out, just not the Sony eBook reader. (for more information on the Sony E-Book see http://ebooks.custhelp.com/app/answers/list/kw/wireless/r_id/166/sno/1/search/1/session/L2F2LzEvc2lkL2FnQ1RyKjhr Judith Jordet Library Coordinator Deer Ridge Correctional Institution Madras, OR 97741

  48. Lynn on 09/02/2010:

    You could also get the gizmos that only have wi-fi capabilities. The Kindle and the Nook both have versions that are wi-fi dependent. If the prison does not have a wi-fi network set up or if it is password protected, then the user would not be able to get on the net.

  49. crteacher on 08/31/2010:

    "O brave new world!!!" ~ Miranda: THE TEMPEST This is probably the most exciting article I've read on corrections.com. I'd love to see it work. Imagine -- not destroyed GED books! Access to teacher resources not available now except on disk! At my facility, most of us (staff, not inamtes) have limited internet access, including some -- but not all -- pages on corrections.com, while some staff who require more access are not blocked. Couldn't such a system work in this case?

  50. timma on 08/31/2010:

    Judith, I happened to stumble across your article "E-books in a Correctional Setting: a niche market". It's a very interesting idea and a great application for e-readers in the corrections system. I do own a pair of Kindle 2 devices (one for me and another for my wife) so I have firsthand experience I'm an IT engineer by profession so, of course, as I read this, it was with an eye towards how I would build something like this. It would be great to see something like this come to fruition. Is the idea for individual inmates to purchase and own their own Kindles? Or is the idea to purchase Kindles owned by the corrections dept and have them available to be lent to inmates? There are a couple of things mentioned in your article that presented themselves as possible hurdles to implementing this. I wanted to just share my thoughts on this. Hurdle #1. You wrote: I studied the Kindle, Sony and Nook e-book readers; all of them are equipped to access the Internet. [some text omitted for brevity] I called Amazon to see if it could sell Kindles to Corrections without direct access to Wikipedia. No, it is a package deal. Also, all three e-book readers include email and/or blogging. It is possible to provide email to inmates in some circumstances and maybe someday even the Internet, but providing Internet to an inmate along with two-way email is not an easy combination to supervise for public safety. The newly introduced Kindle 3 and Nook offer Wi-Fi only devices. Wi-Fi allows the device to connect to a network; but not necessarily the internet. A correctional facility could offer a wireless network that that the e-reader device could connect to, but not offer direct access to the internet. The network could either restrict it to accessing only an internal corrections network or strictly enforce which sites on the internet can be accessed through the use of a transparent proxy. In fact, a transparent proxy can be configured to only allow access to a single internet site if desired. You can certainly limit any access to sites/email/blogging. That technology exists today, is a mature technology, and is fairly easy to setup. I work for a major financial company and we do this type of filtering today. We don't want our business users to access external mail sites (like yahoo/gmail/etc.), adult content, etc. Hurdle #2: How to offer books and control what books are available? Your initial idea "Kindle for Corrections" would have been the ideal solution. If Amazon would participate and basically create a collection of books appropriate for inmates, that would be the best solution. However, even if they don't, this is not a dead end. There are two issues at hand here. The first is the technology and how you make such an offering. The second is around how to license books. Let's start with the book licensing issue. This problem has already been solved in another industry -- public library. Public libraries today are starting to offer ebooks. It allows them to acquire a certain number of licenses for books and let library patrons borrow them. You can limit the number of simultaneous copies of any particular ebook that can be checked out at any given time. Plus it has the mechanisms to "expire" a book that has been lent -- for example, after 2 weeks. With regard to how to make the books available and control content, a possible solution would again follow the public library model. Create a corrections library web site. Books are purchased by the corrections dept and placed on the website -- that's how content is controlled. The transparent proxy that I mentioned earlier would restrict the e-reader so that it could only access the corrections library website. Creating such a website may sound daunting, but it really isn't considering the fact the a lot of public libraries have web sites like this. In fact, I even have my own rudimentary site for the ebooks that I purchased (http://timdebma.homeip.net -- it requires a username/password to login). To create a system like this does mean creating some backend infrastructure in addition to buying the e-reader device. Is there the appetite in the corrections field to make this type of investment? thanks, tim email: timmyma@gmail.com

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