Wired shut

Exaggerations are not new for Ric Keller. His congressional campaign last fall employed one commercial so filled with distortions that a local TV station yanked it.

That spot wrongly implied his opponent, former Orange County Chairman Linda Chapin, used tax dollars to buy pay-cable TV in the county jail. Voters may not have believed the rhetoric -- Chapin actually ordered cable connections pulled when they were brought to her attention -- but they still bought the candidate, sending Keller to Washington, where he's put the cable issue on his agenda again. Not content merely to browbeat those who he portrayed as "soft on crime" in Central Florida, Keller now wants to turn off cable in prisons all across the country.

The conservative freshman congressman boasts that his "No Frills Prison Act" would strip federal corrections facilities of cable TV, but as word of the bill spreads, the controversy over inmate privileges is heating up yet again.

"TV, like most things in a prison environment, is a popular management tool," said Jim Turpin, legislative liaison for the American Correctional Association, a trade group for corrections professionals. "In a closed environment, TV becomes something that can affect the calm operation of the facility."

Similar bills have surfaced in years past but fizzled as the session progressed.

"It's more for sound bites than policy," said Turpin.

Had those earlier versions of the bill become law, jailbirds would have missed Keller plugging the legislation on Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor in early February.

"We're not taking away the free network television," Keller told cable talk show host Bill O'Reilly. "We're still going to let them watch ‘a very special Touched by an Angel,' but we're going to be taking away The Sopranos `on Home Box Office` and MTV and that sort of thing."

Keller said his legislation was inspired by an identical law that stripped cable from Florida's jails and prisons. The state is one of eight that have removed cable TV from corrections facilities.

Five years ago, state legislators rewrote rules governing expenses on cable TV and recreational equipment, thus making corrections facilities heavily dependent on donations.

Corrections officials both nationwide and on Keller's home turf, however, are skeptical of his pitch.

"At night, especially at this time of year when you've got inmates in their dorms early in the evening, `television` keeps inmates quiet if there's something they want to watch," said Florida Corrections Department spokeswoman Debbie Buchanan. "At certain times, it does keep inmates entertained and out of trouble."

Taxpayer dollars pay for basic cable television service in many prisons, said Keller. A type of prison commissary trust fund affords them with the luxury in other instances.

The latter option is what provides Florida prisons with premium channels, said Buchanan. Money is generated through the sale of items like shampoo, junk food and other nonessentials at inmate-operated canteens.

Even though inmates are, in effect, paying for some of the premium benefits, Keller plans to follow through with the bill in those instances as well.

"I think if we've got $180 million worth of prison money going for cigarettes and Showtime, then those folks should pay restitution to the criminal victims," Keller told O'Reilly.

"If you're going to take out TVs and cable, which taxpayers don't pay for anyway, we'll have to put more officers there to baby-sit these inmates," said Robert Walla, a former Charlotte County jail administrator and member of the American Jail Association's board of directors.

Television was a way for inmates to stay connected with the outside world at the facility that Walla headed after he barred newspaper delivery when waste papers posed storage and fire-hazard problems. Still, he thinks the bill will be popular on Capitol Hill.

Based on the success of the Florida Legislature's bill, Keller expects 90 to 95 percent support from the House.

Lawmakers, however, have not shown an affinity for similar bills in the past.

Richard Zimmer, a former New Jersey congressman, introduced comparable legislation in 1995. His bill, however, included a prohibition on buying weight- training equipment and certain household appliances. "I got hate mail from prisoners for that one," said Zimmer, who lost a bid for a Senate seat in 1996 and for his old congressional post last year.

While the bill itself floundered, elements of Zimmer's legislation were incorporated in annual appropriations for the federal departments of State, Commerce and Justice, he said.

But previous federal bills that incorporated a cable television ban in prison have been "more of a scatter-shot," said Keller, with a passage or two included in a larger body of legislation. He offered his bill as "one clean, simple issue that everyone can understand."

Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) currently is drafting a more extensive prison bill with a similar name. His "Federal No Frills Prison Act," which officials expect to be introduced in the House in the next few weeks, goes beyond Keller's cable TV prohibition. Simmons' act would ban taxpayer dollars from buying anything considered a prison "luxury," from martial-arts instruction and weight rooms to in-cell TVs and musical instruments, said his legislative director, Todd Mitchell.

Mitchell, who previously worked for Zimmer, said Simmons' bill codifies the language signed into law as part of the Commerce, Justice and State spending bills, "so it's the law and doesn't have to be revisited." That language has been part of the last four spending bills that helped fund the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

"We're not advocating going back to chain gangs," said Mitchell. "But they should be in `prison` for what they're meant to be there for -- punishment. We don't want prisoners to have certain luxuries on the inside that law-abiding citizens don't have on the outside."

Cable television is not widely used in Florida's five privately operated jails, said Mark Hodges, executive director of the Florida Correctional Privatization Commission. But he concedes that the proposed ban -- which would not affect private prisons -- is worrisome to jail administrators.

"I can understand the move to take away comforts from inmates, but I would avoid anything that would put corrections officers in more danger," said Hodges. "They're in enough danger already."

Said Walla: "Politically, a lot of people want to do this, but practically, it's one of the tools we use to control the population. We depend on it very heavily."

The need for federal involvement in matters usually mandated by state and local corrections officials also has been questioned by the corrections community in the wake of Keller's proposal. A bill putting local decisions in the hands of national lawmakers could make for a major power struggle.

From work camps to maximum-security prisons, the unique circumstances and distinct populations of each facility must be considered before certain policies are imposed, said Turpin.

"How much micromanaging do we need on a congressional level?" he asked. Prison administrators "need to have the ability to manage the day-to-day operations of a facility. There are much more serious concerns in corrections than whether or not TV is there."

The bigger picture, Keller said, is cutting back on the leniency in correctional facilities nationwide. Premium channels and pay-per-view boxing are just two components the larger issue.

"There are strong arguments on both sides," he said. "Anybody committing a violent crime in this country should have no access to any kind of leisure activity like that at all."

The bill is now in the hands of the House Judiciary Committee, of which Keller is a member. He said the crime subcommittee has put his legislation "on the fast track" for a decision in the near future.

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