Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Prison TV: Luxury or Management Tool?

By Paul Wright

In March 1994, the Florida state legislature passed a law severely restricting how the DOC could spend prisoner welfare funds. It specifically prohibited the expenditure of welfare funds for cable television, to rent movie videos, televisions, VCRs or purchase other electronic entertainment equipment for prisoners. The law was passed on a 37 to 1 vote in the state senate. Corrections officials predicted the move would lead to more violence in state prisons unless the legislature provides other activities to keep prisoners busy.

The Florida DOC does not allow its prisoners to privately own television sets. This law effectively removes all televisions from Florida state prisons. Only a handful of the state's 65 prisons had cable TV. Lawmakers claimed not to like the idea of prisoners watching TV, movies or playing video games.

In Massachusetts former federal prosecutor William Weld was elected governor as a hardline republican vowing to "get tough on crime." One of his campaign pledges was to rid the state's prisons of television sets (one of the other pledges was to restore the death penally). As of this writing it is unknown whether he has accomplished this or not.

In Michigan state prisoners recently sought, and obtained, an injunction from Ingham County Circuit Court Judge James Giddings ordering televisions to be made available for purchase. For years the Michigan DOC had allowed prisoners to purchase televisions, then in the months before June, 1994, the DOC did not make televisions available for purchase on its commissary. Judge Ingham's order of June 8, 1994, in Cain v. Glover, Docket No. 88-61119-AZ and 93-14975-CM reads in relevant part: "It is further ordered that Section III.B. 16 of PD-BCF-53.01 is amended to provide as follows: A prisoner may purchase a television set selected by the Department through the institution, equipped with earplugs or earphones, with a price limit of $140."

In Washington state one of the little noticed provisions of the so-called "Youth Violence Initiative," signed into law by Governor Lowry during the 1994 legislative session, was language which prohibits the DOC from showing "X" or "NC-17" rated and non-rated movies in adult prisons. "R" rated movies cannot be shown in juvenile prisons.

Martin Tankleff, a PLN subscriber in Dannemora, New York, sent us the following letter: "Effective May 26, 1994, the Clinton Main Facility implemented the in-cell TV program and sold the first units. The program is in place at other New York state prisons; Wende, Southport-Cadre, and Attica, the scene of one of the worst riots in history. After the program was initiated in the other prisons, the administration at Clinton put the vote to the prisoners in August of 1993. What was funny was that within an hour of taking a paper ballot vote, the prison administration came up with numbers in favor of the in-cell TV program.

"The program has a catch, it is a give and take deal. Once the in-cell TV program is in effect, packages from family and friends are limited to only two a year. A prisoner can now receive only 20 pounds of food on a birthday and the holiday of his choice. All other packages, such as clothing and toiletries, must come from approved sources such as manufacturers, stores and mail order catalogs.

"It is my opinion that the reason for the enactment of the in-cell TV program is to reduce the amount of violence inside prison walls. Perhaps that explains why the only other New York state prisons with personal televisions are those that have a history of violence. Administrators feel that if a prisoner has a TV the likelihood of that prisoner violating prison rules will be minimized. Why? Because one of the rules of having a TV is that if the prisoner gets a Tier II or Tier III ticket (the most serious levels of disciplinary violations), he loses his televisions privileges. Also, there will be no violence concerning crowded yard TV's and more time will be spent in cells, avoiding contact with other prisoners. So far, it appears to have worked in the other prisons. Now let's see how it works in New York's most violent prison."

In 1992 while I was at the Clallam bay Correction Center (CBCC) in Washington state the administration began a program of providing free state owned televisions to those prisoners unable to afford one of their own. CBCC was then in the process of being converted into a maximum security prison with the accompanying restrictions on prisoner movement and recreation activities. A similar program was implemented in 1993 by officials at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, WA.

While legislators in Florida are removing TV's prison officials in Washington are giving them away (albeit with money from the Inmate Welfare Fund) and in New York they are being allowed at selected facilities. So is TV the opiate of the prisoner masses or the lap of luxury? A number of people, including some prisoner activists, believe it is the former.

A prison activist in Wisconsin would like to actively seek the removal of all televisions from that state's prisons. He is of the view that television results in prisoners sitting in their cells, stupefied, and not taking any steps to improve themselves or their situation. It is easy to say that prison officials must agree with this view or they would not allow TV's in prison. The drawback to this type of approach is that just having the state take away televisions does not build any type of social consciousness. In preparation for this article I asked a prisoner who's been doing time since the mid-50's "what did prisoners do before TV?" and he replied that they listened to the radio. All the complaints leveled against TV in prison now was said about the radio then. The problem lies not with television as such but rather what is shown on it. To the extent that programming reflects the dominant political and economic structure and values then of course it is an indoctrination tool of the worst sort, witness the proliferation of right wing corporate ideology masquerading as "news", i.e. McNeil Lehrer, Rush Limbaugh Show, etc. Whether or not prisoners watch TV has nothing to do with their level of political consciousness, that comes from study and struggle.

The prisoner rights movement can be characterized as the struggle for "more". Whether it is more rights in the way of mail, religion, court access or more privileges such as recreation, visits, and yes, television. While I myself wouldn't lose any sleep if TV's were removed from all prisons, including my own, I don't think that prison activists should support anything that eliminates any of the privileges or rights that have been gained over decades of struggle. One point about television is that anyone who wants to be in tune with what passes for popular culture and debate needs to be aware of what is going on, that is reflected on television which is where the majority of Americans get all their information and news. I watch virtually all programs purporting to deal with prison or criminal justice issues simply because I have to be aware of what images are feeding the public's perception of prisons and prisoners. More than one article has resulted from this. To counteract the mainstream media's distortions you have to know what they're saying in the first place. Most prison officials would be loathe to get rid of TV's for their own reasons. Given the current anti-prisoner hysteria any type of accommodation to the "take away" types will easily backfire. Note that so far most legislatures are taking away education, weights, visits, etc. but keeping the televisions. That should say something.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login