Guards Laud Movie Night in Prison, But Politicians Across Country Pan It

THEY may be locked inside less than 50 acres, but most inmates at Missouri's Jefferson City Correctional Center are wired into the real world.

In-cell TVs provide access to more than a dozen outside channels, from CBS to ESPN.

Internally, the maximum-security prison has its own inmate-run station -- one of only two in the country -- which provides religious and educational programming, updates on policy changes, and daily menus.

On evenings and weekends, in-cell TVs transform cramped quarters into live-in cinemas. The TV station broadcasts two movies each weeknight and eight movies on weekends. ''The videos are very popular with the inmates,'' says prisoner Earl Fleer. TV watching is also popular with guards and admin-istrators, who credit this ''electronic babysitter'' with keeping prisoners under control.

But politicians nationwide are stepping up attacks on such prison ''perks'' -- extending the crackdown on crime from the streets to convicts behind bars.

''Jails are places for punishment, not luxury and relaxation,'' says Rep. Dick Zimmer (R) of New Jersey. He has introduced the ''No Frills Prison Act'' to strip federal prisons of amenities such as in-cell TVs, coffee pots, personally owned computers, and electronic musical instruments. The legislation proposes withholding federal prison construction and improvement funds from any state that maintains such perks.

Meanwhile, states from Florida to California are voluntarily cracking down. At least eight states proposed measures to cut back on prison privileges last year.

During a special session last August, the Mississippi Legislature passed a law banning private TVs, radios, and computers for prisoners, eliminating weight-lifting privileges, and putting inmates back in striped uniforms with ''convict'' stamped across the back.

Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson has ordered an end to weight lifting and tennis courts in state prisons. And in Florida, seven counties have eliminated or restricted television-watching in their jails.

''Knowing there's no television here, maybe they'll think twice before committing a crime,'' said police Sgt. Dan Smith of Clay County, Fla.

BUT many prison administrators argue that clamping down on prisoners does nothing to deter crime. ''People don't think about those things when they're out there ripping and running,'' says Tim Kniest of the Missouri Department of Corrections.

Aside from the convicts themselves, guards and administrators are often the staunchest opponents of tougher policies. In Louisiana, corrections officials successfully lobbied against a planned ban on TV last year.

Before in-cell TVs were available at Jefferson City, large groups of inmates gathered in the gymnasium for movies. ''Moving that many inmates puts strain on staff and presents a real safety concern,'' Mr. Kniest says.

Prison officials warn that riots would be more likely if TV and other privileges are removed. ''What you'd have are a lot of New Mexico States and Atticas,'' says Bob Cartit, a recreation officer at Jefferson City, referring to riots that occurred at these prisons in 1980 and 1971 respectively.

''This is all a release for stress, and we need more release mechanisms, not less. If a guy wakes up in the morning with absolutely nothing to do all day, he's going to think. And what's he going to think about? Who is the enemy? The administration, the guard outside that door.''

Watching a movie in your cell is the safest way to spend an evening, inmate Darryl Luckett says. ''A lot of guys in here are afraid to go out in the population. This provides another tool to ease that tension.''

While politicians argue that taxpayers are footing the bill for prison frills, all in-cell televisions at Jefferson City are purchased with inmate funds. About 80 percent of prisoners have in-cell TVs.

''The idea has really progressed over the years,'' says Don Kline, deputy superintendent of the prison. In 1983, televangelist Jim Bakker donated the satellite dish and processing equipment used by Jefftown Productions at the television station located deep within the prison here, in a windowless room lined with monitors and recording equipment. All funding for the station comes out of profits from the inmate canteen, which sells soap, deodorant, and other personal products to prisoners.

''This is money we spent for shampoo and stuff like that. There are no taxpayer dollars involved,'' says Craig Lancaster, one of five inmates who run the TV station.

Most of the prisoners here work full-time making license plates, shoes, or furniture for the state. They buy TV sets with the money earned in these jobs.

''Everybody that's got a TV in their cell paid for it,'' Mr. Lancaster says. ''You [the taxpayer] didn't buy it for them.'' Videos are prescreened by administrators and rented with inmate-canteen funds.

''But the question is who that money should belong to,'' Congressman Zimmer says. ''I believe inmate earnings should go preponderantly to victim restitution and to pay for their own upkeep.''

Personal televisions are common in state prisons, however. Of 38 states surveyed by the North Carolina Department of Corrections, 31 allow inmates to have in-cell TVs. All 31 states require that the TVs be purchased by family members or inmates. Although 30 states provide cable or satellite hookups, only three pay for those services with state funds.

Only one other American prison -- in Walla Walla, Wash. -- has a television station with production capabilities. The equipment here at Jefftown Productions is often used to produce self-help videos on drug abuse or educational programs that air on the prison channel.

Jefftown has made videos for the state-run shoe factory to market products in other states. And the staff has put together public-service announcements for such state agencies as the Department of Mental Health and Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse. ''We've actually saved the taxpayers money,'' Lancaster says.

Although he views some of the steps that states are taking against inmates as ''archaic,'' Lancaster says he understands the public's frustration.

''People are mad out there. I don't blame them. They want to strike out and really do something. It may not be the best reaction, but it feels good.''

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