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Saturday, October 3, 2009

Television at Stateville - September 24, 2009

Earlier this month, inmates were notified that picture tube televisions will no longer be stocked. When the last of them are sold, a 13" flat screen TV will be sold for $275. Prisoners were surprised we would be allowed to purchase these fancy, modern TVs. I have never seen a flat screen TV, other than in photographs, and asked my family about them. From what I was told, these TVs are not very durable, and that is an important factor when your property is often moved, banged around by guards conducting shakedowns, or mishandled during transfers. On the other hand, it will be nice to have such a compact TV in my cramped cell, and I will be able to wrap it in a blanket and put it inside my box when changing cells. It will also be nice to be able to mount it on the wall. Currently, I have my TV wedged between a horizontal bunk bar and the top bunk. My cellie has placed his on his mattress, where he occasionally will kick it in the night while sleeping. Another plus will be having a remote control. (I am told that flat screen TVs have no buttons except for an on/off button.)

Televisions, as well as radios and Walkmans, are considered privileges by the prison administration, and will be taken away from inmates if they are sent to segregation. Inmates that are well behaved while in segregation can, however, request their audio-visual property back after three months in solitary. TVs are used as carrots, and also as babysitters by the administrators. Many people outside of prison think that offenders sent to prison for punishment should not have a TV. However, the administration realizes that if prisoners were not preoccupied by hours and hours of television, they would occupy themselves in other ways. TV pacifies a large number of violent and unruly convicts who are locked in their cages with nothing to do. Politicians have at times considered the removal of TVs in prison, but the guards' union and top correctional administrators have opposed any such bill. Ironically, the television privileges are more for the guards than those who watch it.

I can easily occupy my time constructively without TV, and often do so by choice. However, the majority of prisoners are unable to do this, and I believe many are TV addicts, watching many hours every day. Without TV, these inmates can go through withdrawal-like symptoms. I once had a cellmate who threatened me because I did not share my TV with him. Most inmates will share their TVs with their cellmate, if one does not have one. However, I am not a social person, and like to watch TV by myself, unless I have come to know or like the person with whom I share a cell. Furthermore, I will not give a stranger permission to use my TV or any of my property when I am not using it, or not in the cell. I fought with the cellmate who threatened me with violence over the TV. Afterwards, my cellmate still did not have a TV to watch, and spent his remaining days with me mostly on his bunk twiddling his fingers.

All prisons, that I am aware of, have a large number of cable stations. Menard, for example, has almost 100 stations. Stateville, however, until a few years ago, only had broadcast TV. In 2005, a warden finally approved satellite television. Initially, prisoners were happy about the news, but they were soon disappointed when the two huge satellite dishes set up outside the prison walls only brought in an extra 11 channels.

In addition to broadcast stations, Stateville inmates now have CNN, HLN, TBS, TNT, SPIKE, DISC, VH1, BET, CMT, and ESPN 1 & 2. I have been in prison a long time, but when I was free, I seem to recall that even basic cable came with 40 stations. There is something odd with a satellite TV provider that has an option for just 11 stations. The satellite service, by the way, is funded with money from the inmates' trust fund, and not by the taxpayers.

Including the prison's DVD station, inmates have less than 30 stations to choose from. Of these, I only have a few programmed into my TV. I have blocked the other 15 stations, and do not care to watch them. TV shows often depict decadent values, and appear to be geared toward amusing the unintelligent, uneducated, or base masses. It is also often a waste of time, and even though it may seem I have plenty of it to squander while serving my natural life sentence, I would rather not do so.

Every week, movies are rented and played on the prison DVD player. Although it has the capability of holding, and being programmed to rotate and play five DVDs, typically, only three movies are rented. New releases are usually rented, but Hollywood does not produce many quality movies that I would find entertaining. Often, I will only watch the first few minutes to get a feel for a movie before switching to another station. The last DVD I watched was two weeks ago, and called "Che."

"Che" was a movie about the Marxist revolutionary Ernesto Guevara. Guevara was a Cuban who worked with Fidel Castro to topple the Batista government. Afterwards, he resigned his post and dedicated himself to the overthrow of the Bolivian government. However, in Bolivia, Guevara was not nearly as successful as he was in Cuba creating a revolutionary army. The Bolivian government, with the help of the CIA, was able to crush his insurgency, track down, and kill him as well. Ernesto Guevara continues to be a martyr of the radical left, Marxists, and some anarchists. He is pictured on the cover of an album by the alternative rock band, Rage Against the Machine. Although I despise Ernesto Guevara and his ideology, the movie about his life was interesting.

On average, I watch about an hour of television a day, not including Sundays, when I will watch a couple of games of football as well as FOX News in the morning. My daily routine upon waking is to eat breakfast while watching the news. I will flip from station to station with my remote control stick, watching various news segments without commercials until I finish eating. My TV will then be off until 4 p.m., when I turn on CNN to see how the stock market performed. During the evening, I will usually pick a program or movie to watch. Some evenings, I will not watch TV if I have other things to do, or if there is nothing on to my liking.

Yesterday evening, I watched "Man vs. Wild" with Bear Grills. It was a behind-the-scenes look on how the survival TV show is filmed. Tonight, I will catch the reality show "Survivior," although I wish it was more about surviving and competition, than forming alliances and not getting voted off. I will also probably watch the season premier of "The Mentalist." Other programs and shows I will watch are The McLaughlin Group, The Bachelor, UFC (mixed martial arts fighting), PBS documentaries such as produced for Nova, or Secrets of the Dead, which is about prehistoric civilizations, Lou Dobbs on CNN, FOX Sunday news, the ABC show called Lost, or some nature shows.

Television provides not only a utilitarian purpose of learning about the news or various subjects, but an escape from my miserable environment. I will use my large headphones to tune out the blaring zoo-like noises from the cell house. I have my TV positioned so my back is turned to the gallery. It is nice to find a good movie, show, or program that allows me to forget about where I am for the moment. However, television is a poor substitute for a real existence. No amount of television, despite how entertaining it may be, will make me feel better about life or the many years that have been stolen from me.