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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.”