Captive TV audience

July 20, 1992

Three prison inmates recently conducted a survey to determine the best penitentiaries in the United States -- the best, that is, from the standpoint of the pollsters and the 100 other prisoners they interviewed.

It seems an amenity of almost all of the 10 cushiest joints is a television system with a cable or satellite hook-up. (The highest-rated prison, by the way, was Fairbanks Correctional Center in Alaska, where the menu every Friday night features king crab, shrimp and scallops. No Maryland prison cracked the top 10.)

TV for inmates is a touchy topic among many people, especially those who feel prisoners deserve few, if any, creature comforts. It also angers a lot of honest, tax-paying citizens whose towns or counties aren't even wired for cable.

Predictably, politicians are trying to plug into the public's uneasiness. The mayor of St. Louis is running for governor of Missouri on a platform that promises to reduce TV-viewing time for inmates. And Florida's attorney general wants to remove satellite dishes and cable hook-ups from prisons.

But wait. Don't touch that dial! TV reportedly has had a positive impact on some penitentiaries.

The Jefferson City Correctional Center in Missouri, a maximum-security facility once among the most violent in the nation, has seen a decline in the number of disturbances since getting a satellite dish. After all, who has time to fight with a cellmate when professional boxers are duking it out on ESPN?

Prisoners in New York, given a choice between TV and packages from home, often opt for the tube. This pleases prison officials who believe forbidden materials are smuggled in with the packages. Also, according to a producer of "America's Most Wanted," the syndicated program is "one of the best-watched shows in prisons and we've had a lot of tips come from inmates."

Static from cable-deprived citizens and opportunistic pols notwithstanding, it might be best to leave the televisions on in the prisons. As for people who say jail should be a place for punishment and not for TV-watching, well, they obviously don't see much TV themselves.

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