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PLN Editor quoted in Colorado article re television access for prisoners

Denver Post, Sept. 3, 2007.
PLN Editor quoted in Colorado article re television access for prisoners - Denver Post - 2007

TV usage plays starring role in jails

By Michael Booth Denver Post Staff Writer

Article Last Updated: 09/03/2007 02:57:04 AM MDT

For the Denver Broncos' season opener this Sunday, Ricky Trippy and friends will gather in front of the television and snack from a steaming pile of junk food they like to call "The Spread."

Ramen noodles piled with Cheetos preheated in a microwave, chunks of summer sausage, spoonfuls of rehydrated beans and "squeeze cheese" on top. A side of tortillas helps hold the mess together.

Nothing unusual, of course, about the boys grazing greedily in front of a Broncos game. Except when the room decor is cinder block and iron bars, the hallway door is guarded by a sheriff's deputy, and if Broncos fan Trippy wants to see a game in person, he'll have to wait 18 months. That's when he can leave Denver County Jail after serving his time for aggravated assault.

Broncos games, Mexican league soccer matches, weekend movie nights and "Nova" episodes are prime entertainment - often the only entertainment - for prisoners in county jails, state prisons and federal facilities across Colorado.

But they are more than that: As jails grow more crowded, correction authorities look to electronic entertainment as one way to keep the peace. Beyond that, they believe, prisoners just might pick up some knowledge that could help prepare them for life after jail. Even an expanded cable package, for example, might help with both goals, adding science and wildlife channels to a TV lineup dominated by soaps, sitcoms and sports.

Question of balance

That means developing guidelines that can adjust to prisoner behavior and periodic backlashes from a public outraged by a new crime. Currently, corrections authorities are redrawing their policies on R-rated movies and expanded TV packages, trying to survey the line between useful privilege and harmful extravagance.

At Denver County Jail - built for 1,500 inmates but housing 2,100 - officials just created a committee to review specific prisoner requests for films, including R-rated movies.

Trippy and others are bewildered, for example, why wardens nixed Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," a bloody but instructive film both praised and condemned by critics.

The state Department of Corrections also is revamping its movie and TV policies to be more consistent, as some prisons allow R movies while others stop at PG-13, and local satellite- TV contracts can vary widely.

"It's important to the inmates," said Denver County Jail Division Chief Ron Foos, who has personally weighed in on some movie requests. "They bring it up regularly."

TV, movie nights, radio stations piped into cell blocks, the rare magazine subscription scored by an inmate with an attentive family - "all that stuff has a really big impact on your time," said Willie Hayward, held in a more restrictive ward of Denver County Jail for aggravated robbery.

Who gets access to what forms of entertainment, for how much of the day and for what kind of behavior are part of a policy constantly fine-tuned by Colorado wardens.

The state system allowed model prisoners to buy PlayStation game machines from the commissary until some figured out how to turn them into tattoo guns. San Miguel County's 34- bed jail in Telluride won't turn on the day-ward TV until the 5 p.m. news.

"We don't leave it on during the day because it's just like with kids," said Sheriff Bill Masters. "If you leave it on all day, they'll just sit there, and we want them to get outside or read."

The federal prison system must shape its entertainment policies with an extra layer of oversight, when a prisoner or parolee outrage produces new congressional restrictions on funding. That jailers might liberalize movie and TV policies would be a turnaround from a decade ago, said Paul Wright, a former convict who is editor of the national Prison Legal News.

"It goes back to the whole bandwagon of the 1990s of being tough on crime - 'Oh, my God, they're watching movies in prison,"' Wright said.

He says there is no proof that violence or sexual content on film leads to trouble among prisoners.

Consider the Rip Van Winkle factor, Wright says.

"I got out in 2003, when I was 38. When I went in, in 1987, LP records were still a big thing. The reality is you've got a lot of people doing a lot of time in this country. In prison, TV becomes the sole means of accessing what American culture is."

Federal restrictions

Federal Bureau of Prisons regulations mandate that wardens can buy either a movie service through the mail or one premium cable movie channel but not both. The most dangerous inmates in isolated lockdown, such as those at the "Supermax" facility in Florence, have access to black-and-white TVs in their cells.

As with many state and local prisons, the entertainment must be paid for with the profits from the prisoners' money spent on commissary or telephone access.

(The federal manual also notes that since many Spanish- language movies are not rated, staff members must screen them first for nudity and violence.)

What prisoners actually see and hear from hour to hour is a constant negotiation between them and their guards, and among themselves. In the more restrictive blocks of the Denver jail, prisoners who want to watch TVs high up on the wall must listen over the noise of weightlifters and a nonstop indoor basketball game.

Inmate representatives have worked out a Spanish-only TV schedule from noon to 3 p.m. - the block guard in a protective cage has her finger on the channel control - and daily TV picks on the wall worked out previously by the inmate council.

"It's a pacifier," said Hayward, but the babysitters hold the power. When shouting bounces too hard off the concrete walls, the sound can get shut off, the FM radio station goes silent or the TV screens go blank.

In the dorm blocks like Trippy's that have their own TVs for a group of 20, inmates settle on channels to avoid fistfights that would eliminate their privilege. On a hot summer morning, "The Young & the Restless" played at low volume.

"No TV before 8:30 a.m., out of respect," Trippy said. "We're a worker pod, and a lot of guys get up at 2 a.m. to help make breakfast. A lot of guys want to watch cop and court shows, which makes no sense because we're already in here."

Movie weekends are a five- film rotation over three days. A recent lineup included "2 Fast 2 Furious," "Nacho Libre," "Stealth," "Yours, Mine and Ours" and one of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies.

Two other rules hold steady: Sports takes precedent over all, except NASCAR, which few prisoners want. And you get no say if you haven't been in for at least three weeks.

For every inmate complaint that they've seen "Pirates" four times in six weekends, there's a management complaint that prisoners exploit every leniency.

As a result, the commissary-issue TVs can't be taken apart and made into weapons or employed to hide drugs or other contraband. Given infinite time, said state corrections spokeswoman Katherine Sanguinetti, inmates tend to entertain themselves in dubiously innovative ways.

"If only they'd use these powers for good," she laughed.