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Prison TV: Aid and Comfort to the Enemy

I've been serving time in Wisconsin prisons since 1980. A lot of changes in the way these joints are run have come down the pike in that time, almost all of them for the worse: less recreation, less visiting, less educational and counselling opportunities, more overcrowding, more lock down time in the cells, and lower wages for prison jobs.  Last October the Wisconsin DOC removed all weight lifting equipment from state prisons.  In 1992, prison officials here imposed a draconian new scheme of property rules that drastically reduced what prisoners could have.  Everything that inmates own, aside from their televisions, must now fit inside a footlocker measuring 16" x 16" x 32".

TVs are not only excepted from the 1992 property rules, they are excepted from the entire trend toward less and less. Wisconsin prison officials have steadily expanded opportunities for television viewing.  The Waupun prison now shows five uncut movies daily on its closed-circuit institution channel, and the Portage prison offers prisoners basic cable service, ESPN and all.  The Green Bay prison, where I'm now confined, provides state-owned TVs, at no charge, for prisoners who can't afford to buy their own sets.

It's no coincidence that TV privileges have grown during the same period when everything else has been cut back.  Prison officials gave us more and more TV precisely for the purpose of keeping inmates pacified while the  DOC took everything else.  In essence, prisoners have sold their souls for television.  We've said to the keep: "Look, you all can do anything you want to us so long as you let us watch TV."

An instructive example of this phenomenon took place in 1993 at the Clinton Main Facility in New York.  Prisoners there requested that they be allowed to have in-cell televisions, and administrators had wanted for some time to cut back package-room privileges.  So the warden put it to a vote.  Prisoners could have their in-cell TVs if they agreed to a rule limiting them to no more than two packages per year from families and friends.  The inmates voted to give up their packages in order to get the TVs.

When prisoners and their supporters began campaigning to get televisions into the prisons back in the 1970s, correctional administrators resisted the idea.  But twenty years of observing the effects of television on prisoners has caused the keepers to change their minds. Nowadays, when elected politicians rail against prison TV in order to get votes, prison officials vigorously defend the "need" to keep television in the joint.

The administrators know that television is the most powerful tool they have for keeping convicts docile and submissive.  TV privileges are suspended as punishment for infractions, and television is completely denied to convicts in the hole.  Prisoners who spend most of their waking hours staring at the tube, as an embarrassingly large number do, pose no threat to the keep.  A definite trend I've noticed over the course of my term is that the level of resistance to oppressive actions by prison staff has decreased in direct proportion to the increase in television privileges.

Whenever I pull a stretch in the hole, I'm struck by the huge difference in the extent of social interaction between prisoners in the seg units and those on the main-line.  Convicts in seg talk for hours on end, discussing everything imaginable.  In the hole I'll often read interesting articles aloud on the tier, and spirited debate always follows. Prisoners from all different sets and races contribute their views and respond to others.  Nothing approaching that level of community can be found in the mainline cellblocks, where prisoners mostly interact with their TVs.

Reading material is like gold in the seg units.  All books and magazines that make it into the hole are eagerly devoured and passed from prisoner to prisoner.  I've seen convicts perform astonishing feats of fishing, skipping lines from tier to tier and even around corners in order to retrieve printed matter.  I've also spent several years working in prison libraries.  I can't begin to count the number of times I've seen a mainline prisoner show up in the library, grab a newspaper, turn to the TV listings, write down the times and channels for all the shows and then leave, never to be seen in the library again.

There is yet another way the presence of television in the joint harms prisoners.  The general public firmly believes that anyone who watches TV is living in the lap of luxury, even if they're also packed like sardines into filth-ridden, vermin-infested cells, fed slop, enslaved and forced to work for pennies an hour, deprived of family and friends, and denied all freedom. That belief is incomprehensible to me, but it's very real and extremely popular out there in the world. The fact that we watch cable TV and rented videos sets people's blood boiling, no matter how badly we're treated otherwise.  Right-wing cranks continuously scream that the justice system is way too soft on criminals, citing as evidence the fact that prisoners are sitting around watching color TV.  Many people are even moved to support capital punishment because they so loath the notion of convicted murderers watching TV in prison.

The presence of television carves away at our interests from opposite directions at the same time. TVs allow correctional administrators to roll back our rights and impose conditions harsher than they would otherwise be able to get away with, and prison TV also convinces the public that we've living far too comfortably in these joints.  A more devastating double-whammy is hard to imagine.  Those whose goals are hostile to the cause of prisoners have no more potent a weapon in their arsenal than prison TV.

Just as the prison-administration establishment changed its view on TV, prisoners and their supporters must do the same.  It's time for us to recognize the real purposes prison TV serves. Nothing gives more aid and comfort to our enemies.

Paul Wright, in an essay in these pages supporting TV, said the prisoner rights movement can be characterized as the struggle for more: more visiting, more education, more access to the courts, etc.  I accept that characterization, but the most effective step we can take toward accomplishing our ends is to dump the TVs.  It is only because we have television that prison officials have been able to get away with taking everything else.  So long as our adversaries can tell the public that we're sitting around watching cable, no grievance we have, regardless how just, will get a fair hearing in the public discourse   Let us bar the gate to this Trojan horse our enemies so deviously offer. Give television back to the keepers; let them watch it.

[Editor's Note: The September, 1994, issue of PLN had an article by Paul Wright on Prison TV. Copies of that issue are available for $1, the article alone is available for an SASE]

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