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Prisons and Jails Preparing for Switch to Digital TV Broadcasting ... or Not

Prisons and Jails Preparing for Switch to Digital TV Broadcasting ... or Not

by Matt Clarke

On February 17, 2009, over-the-air television broadcasters were scheduled to complete the switch from analog to digital signals. Following the changeover, analog televisions will no longer receive over-the-air stations without a converter, as all channels will be broadcast digitally.

The conversion is needed to free up airwaves for public safety communications, wireless broadband services and cell phone companies. The deadline for the analog-to-digital broadcasting switch has since been extended; all broadcasters must now make the changeover by June 12, 2009.

Some prison systems are prepared for the switch. In California, for example, all TVs purchased by prisoners since July 2008 have been digital and all state-owned TVs will be equipped with digital converters, according to California DOC spokesman Paul Verke.

Tennessee prisons plan to mount rooftop antennas with a digital service to provide signals to most prisoners’ in-cell TVs. Prisoners will be charged a small fee for the service. The Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice has an estimated 7,000 televisions, which will be upgraded by installing digital receivers.

Jails and prisons with cable connections will not have to do anything, as cable service providers will convert the digital signals for their customers. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons has cable TV in its facilities and thus won’t be affected by the digital conversion.

Other states are ill-prepared for the changeover. John Ozmint, Director of the South Carolina DOC, complained that the prison system didn’t qualify for government-issued coupons that cover the $40 cost of a digital converter box. “We asked them for the coupons and they’re only available for households. I said, ‘We’re the big house.’ But they didn’t buy it,” stated Ozmint, who noted that the state won’t pay for converter boxes for the prison system’s common-area televisions.

The North Carolina DOC has not even determined how many converter boxes it will need, while Florida officials, who balked at spending $100,000 to upgrade TVs in state prisons, put out a call for converter box donations. Alabama has also requested coupon donations, noting that the coupons can be transferred to others.

In Rhode Island, prisoners are being asked to either purchase a converter box or buy a new digital-capable television. The Massachusetts DOC spent almost $77,000 on 117 new flat-screen TVs, using money from the prison system’s canteen fund.

A number of jails are using funds from commissary sales to pay for digital TV conversions, including the Delaware County Jail in Ohio. Others, such as the Seminole County, Florida jail, are doing nothing because they don’t provide televisions.

Of course the many prisons, jails and other detention facilities throughout the nation will each address the digital TV changeover problem in their own way – or not. Many will choose to do so, even at considerable expense, as corrections officials consider television to be a management tool that keeps prisoners occupied and compliant.

“It’s a big thing for inmates to be able to have television,” said Tennessee DOC spokeswoman Dorinda Carter. “It occupies a lot of time, and keeps their minds off other things that could be dangerous.”

Sources:,,,, Columbus Dispatch, Associated Press, Tribune-Herald,

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