MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- At a federal prison in the mountains of southern West Virginia, hundreds of female inmates are taking part in a pilot program to bring the quality of entertainment behind bars into the 21st century.
More than 400 inmates have spent about $70 apiece to buy an MP3 player from the commissary in the Federal Prison Camp at Alderson, then 80 cents to $1.55 per song to customize their playlists from a database offering about 1 million songs.
It's essentially just an update in technology, says U.S. Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Traci Billingsley. Federal prisoners have been able to buy radios for decades. If the program works in West Virginia, it will be rolled out to other federal facilities in late spring or early summer.
The maker of the music player says the new technology is also safer because cassette and CD players have motors, and CDs can be broken into sharp pieces. An MP3 player has no moving parts that can be used as weapons.
In all, federal facilities house about 177,000 inmates, many of whom would be allowed to participate in the program unless they're in isolation or otherwise barred from using the in-house computers that store the music library.
Keeping inmates busy helps promote safety, Billingsley said, particularly in overcrowded prisons where stress, conflict and the risk of violence is high.
"In a time of budget constraint, the MP3 program offers a way to occupy inmates – at no cost to the taxpayer," she wrote in an email responding to questions about the project.
It also provides better access to music in rural areas with little or no radio reception.
"It is part of a long-term plan to provide audio books and even audio recordings on a variety of topics," including education, Billingsley said. "This could reduce recidivism and help those who leave prison to become productive citizens."
Alderson – once dubbed "Camp Cupcake" by some news organizations – is the same minimum-security prison that housed lifestyle and media mogul Martha Stewart for five months in 2004 and 2005 after she was convicted of lying about a stock sale. It holds about 1,200 women.
Administrators there declined to discuss the program or allow inmates to be interviewed.
Kevin Curry, an inmate at West Virginia's maximum-security state prison, the Mount Olive Correctional Center, learned how important music is in what he calls "a scary, cold, hard place where you don't know anyone and you're not sure who, if anyone, you should know."
Curry, 43, is four years into a 15- to 35-year term for three first-degree sexual assault convictions. Today, he has a guitar and a CD player. But for the three years that he awaited trial in a regional jail, he had no access to music.
He missed it so desperately that he asked friends and family to mail him song lyrics.
"By reading the lyrics, I could hear the music in my mind. That really helped but still couldn't compare to the real thing," said Curry, who responded to a list of questions from The Associated Press through his ex-wife, who transcribed his answers during a telephone call.
When Curry got to Mount Olive, the first item he bought from the commissary was a radio/CD player. His selections through a mail-order CD program are limited and don't include the Christian music he and some fellow prisoners would like, but Curry says he's grateful for what he gets.
"I listen to it every day," he said. "It relaxes me and helps me feel less depressed and helps me deal with being in here."
Jim Ielapi, deputy commissioner of the state Division of Corrections, said West Virginia is also considering shifting to MP3 players for its state prisons.
Inmates have always had access to music in some form, he said, from cassette players to "boom boxes." Today, they can buy Sony Walkman-style CD players for $16-$24.
Like any other personal possession, Ielapi says, musical devices have the potential to cause problems between inmates. But the MP3 players are encoded to identify their owners, and Ielapi argues they're no different from many other items available in commissaries.
Iowa-based Advanced Technologies Group Inc. is supplying the MP3 players at Alderson, and President Atul Gupta said the company is also participating in two of three ongoing pilot programs in state correctional systems. He wouldn't identify which ones, citing confidentiality agreements.
"The driving force is pretty much consistent across the country: It improves security," Gupta says.
Electronics aren't new to prisons. Some inmates have televisions. At Alderson, the prison store stocks not only batteries, but also scissors, pens, razors, fans, alarm clocks and umbrellas. A Sony radio costs about $44.
But most facilities, whether state or federal, have rules prohibiting inmates from giving each other their possessions – restrictions aimed at ensuring the items aren't traded for sex, protection or to pay a debt.
"The purchase, use and control of radios have always been carefully monitored. Inmates are subject to disciplinary action for violating those restrictions," Billingsley said. "The same is true for MP3 players. The same restrictions, monitoring and disciplining procedures are in place with the MP3 program."
The bureau's two-year contract with ATG is for $5.15 million, a figure Billingsley said was based on projected sales. ATG is the only supplier because it uses a secure delivery method for the music, the Trust Fund Limited Inmate Computer System's closed network.
Billingsley said the program is expected to break even after the initial equipment and license purchases. Eventually, it should turn a profit, and that money will go into the Inmate Trust Fund Account, which pays for inmate activities and the salaries of staff associated with those activities.
The musical selections are censored, though, and federal inmates are denied access to explicit, obscene or racially charged music. Billingsley said the bureau relies on the Recording Industry Association of America rating system in making titles available.
"We also have the ability, should the need arise," she said, "to remove any songs that we feel may be disruptive to a correctional environment."