It should be a TV programmer's dream: more than a million viewers with nothing better to do than sit in front of the tube all day. But this audience is really captive; they're inmates in the nation's 4,000 prisons and jails. Faced with severe overcrowding and limited budgets for rehabilitation and counseling, more and more prison officials are using TV to keep inmates quiet. "I don't want to call it a babysitter, but it's certainly an adult-tender," says Donald Cline, associate superintendent at Missouri's Jefferson City Correctional Center.
Cable TV is now available in about two thirds of the country's prisons and tens of thousands of inmates spend hours each day hooked up to headphones connected to sets in their cells. In the past, TV watching was usually restricted to communal sets in group dayrooms; there was limited choice of programs and fights were more common. With cable, inmates can select from a broader range of programs. Prison officials say they feel safer because there's less potential for violence when prisoners watch either alone or in small groups. "Sports is probably the best pacifier," says Larry Garvy of Satellite Management Services, Inc., in Tempe, Ariz., which has 40,000 prison subscribers. TV also serves as a disciplinary tool; most inmates get it unless they are in solitary for bad behavior.
The tube is more than just passive entertainment in some prisons. At Jefferson City, Missouri's largest maximum-security facility, prisoners run Jefftown Video Productions, believed to be the only TV system in the country operated entirely by inmates. Jefftown's 24-hour closed-circuit system has 12 channels, two of them with in-house programming. The offerings include everything from the Sunday prison chapel services to programs on substance abuse and AIDS, along with regular sports, entertainment and news. Inmates get to choose what they want to watch. Prison TV has replaced the prison newspaper as the main source of in-house communication-not surprising given that an estimated 40 percent of the inmates are illiterate. Jefftown's role as an opiate for the psyche has become more important as the prison gets younger, more violent inmates. "They don't have any morals," says Joe Corpier, 26, Jefftown's senior staff member and a convicted murderer.
Censorship is minimal; Jefferson City officials allow virtually all films that are not X-rated. Recent titles have included "Terminator 2," "Demon Toys" and "I'm Dangerous Tonight." But "The Silence of the Lambs" was banned after an initial showing because officials thought that some inmates might identify too much with the Hannibal Lecter character. Although some experts worry that too much action could incite prisoners, Atlanta psychiatrist Cassandra Newkirk, who works in prisons, argues that violent TV probably won't make inmates more violent: "These guys could write the scripts better than the folks in Hollywood."
But not everyone approves of turning convicts into couch potatoes. "If TV substitutes for more important aspects of any correctional-facility program, like school or vocational training, then it has to be seriously questioned," says psychiatrist Henry Weinstein, director of the forensicpsychiatry service at New York University Medical Center. No one thinks that even the best programming could ever replace good training programs. But with fiscal constraints, TV may be the most efficient Band-Aid for the ills of the corrections system. "If there's a good movie on, it's usually pretty quiet through the whole institution," says Corpier. Experts say men are less likely to commit crimes once they have reached their late 30s. "Basically we just have to hang onto these birds until their testosterone levels drop," says Daniel Polsby, a criminal-law expert at Northwestern University. For inmates, TV makes doing that time a little less tedious.