David Lahnala, a double murderer serving a life sentence in an Oregon prison, soon will be able to surf more than a dozen channels on his own flat-panel television. After decades of watching television in large groups on cell block floors and in activity rooms, Oregon inmates are increasingly being offered cable tv in cells, Portland’s Oregonian reports.
Critics call it coddling criminals. The state corrections department says prisons are crowded and losing recreation and education programs; guards are constantly breaking up bloody fist fights during group TV hours. At Oregon State Correctional Institution, superintendent Jim Bartlett expects in-cell television to be “a good baby sitter.” Oregon’s maximum security prison has offered in-cell cable since 1987; 1,124 of 1,900 inmates have it. Bartlett recalled a melee that broke out between two men during TV time. It took six officers and a shot or two of pepper spray to break it up. “The officers ran in there, not knowing if they were being coaxed in there,” he said. “It could have been a diversion.”
Corrections officials note that taxpayers pay only for the electricity. Prisoners buy televisions with money they make from working behind bars. Cable service is funded by collective inmate trust accounts.
Steve Doell, president of Crime Victims United, is critical of all the tv watching. “A lot of the problems these guys have is socialization — getting along with others,” he says. “So, how do you socialize them when they’re sitting in their cell by themselves?”
Criminologist Steve Gibbons of Western Oregon University believes cable television may make the inmate transition back into society easier. Through TV, convicts can keep track of new technologies, current events, and popular culture, he said.