COLUMBIA, S.C – The big switch to digital TV has prison officials scrambling to keep one of the most important peacekeeping tools in prisons across the nation — broadcast television.
When the nation's broadcasters make the switch from analog to digital signals next Feb. 17, televisions that aren't hooked up to cable, satellite or a converter box will be reduced to static.
While TV might seem like an undeserved luxury for inmates, prison officials and inmates say the tube does more than fill year after year of idle hours — it provides a sense of normalcy and is a bargaining chip that encourages good behavior.
The TV industry has spent months preparing consumers for the switch, running ads and offering government-funded coupons that can be redeemed for the converter boxes needed to display the digital signal on older TVs.
But officials worry that prisoners may be left to stare at blank screens because they don't qualify for the $40 coupons.
"They won't give us the switches — we called them," said South Carolina Corrections Department Director Jon Ozmint. "We asked them for the coupons and they said they're only available for households. I said, 'We're the big house.' But they didn't buy it."
Ozmint said state money won't be used to buy the undetermined number of converters South Carolina needs to keep its TVs running in common areas. Officials in many states haven't figured out exactly how many converter boxes will be needed — and what the exact cost will be.
In North Carolina, 699 televisions in 26 of the state's 78 prison facilities get over-the-air broadcast TV. For instance, one prison in Taylorsville has 40 over-the-air TVs, Department of Corrections spokesman Keith Acree said.
The agency is trying to determine whether multiple televisions can be hooked up to a single converter box, or if each TV will need a converter box, he said.
In Florida, corrections department spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said officials are asking for donations for the digital boxes and could buy the converters themselves.
But that's something that may need legislators' approval because Florida law bars spending money on perks like cable TV for inmates.
"It's important because it's an inmate idleness issue," Plessinger said. "[We're] concerned about inmates acting up if they're bored."
Plessinger, Ozmint and others — including those who have served time — see television more as necessity than perk. Norris Henderson, who spent 27 years in Louisiana's Angola prison, said it's a myth that inmates idle away the day watching soap operas and game shows.
"If anything has a priority, it's the news," Henderson said.
Where inmates watch TV, and for how long, depends on the state and prison. Some inmates watch television in communal day rooms, while other prisons let inmates have small TVs in their cells.
Checo Yancy, who spent 20 years in Angola, said TVs rarely are turned on when inmates are working — but there are exceptions. On Sept. 11, 2001, inmates watched in horror as the aftermath of the terror attacks on New York and Washington unfolded.
"Inmates were just as heartbroken as people on the outside," said Yancy, who now helps run the Louisiana chapter of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants. "I saw guys cry that particular day because it was a tragedy."
Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist and prison expert at the University of California, Berkeley, said there is clear evidence that TV privileges can positively affect prisoners.
At Indiana's Wabash Valley super-maximum security prison, he said, far fewer behavior problems were reported among inmates in isolation after they were given small televisions and prison officials spent more time talking with them.
"You don't want to be managing prisoners who have nothing to lose," Kupers said.
In Alabama, prisons don't have access to cable or satellite and wardens began studying the issue in August, said prison agency spokesman Brian Corbett.
Officials are counting how many converter boxes are needed and plan to round up the federal coupons for the gear, Corbett said.
While prisons can't seek the coupons directly, nothing prevents people from passing them along to others, said Bart Forbes, a spokesman for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons receives cable TV service, so officials don't anticipate any interruptions, spokeswoman Felicia Ponce said.
Federal inmates are allowed limited viewing in common rooms with some restrictions — for instance, they can't watch R-rated movies.
In Pennsylvania, inmates received notices telling them they'd have to pay for converter boxes for the TVs they are allowed to keep in their cells or hook up to prison cable systems, state corrections spokeswoman Susan McNaughton said.