Reeder: Time to stop paying for cable TV for Illinois inmates
By Scott Reeder firstname.lastname@example.org June 10, 2013 10:46PM
Updated: July 12, 2013 6:35AM
Every time I visit a state prison in Illinois for a story, I’m filled with wonderment at what I see.
It’s not the starkness of the steel bars, concrete walls and barbed wire or the men and women locked in their cells that catch my attention.
It’s what they are doing — watching TV.
And not just your standard television programs but cable television.
And guess who is paying for it? Illinois taxpayers.
I know lots of people too poor to afford cable TV. I know plenty of middle-class folks too frugal to buy it, too.
In fact, for most of my life I’ve gone without cable. It’s not that I couldn’t afford it. But I had better things to spend my money on, like books.
And yet, folks who pinch their pennies and forgo cable TV subscriptions are being taxed so that criminals can watch the latest episode of “Mad Men.” That’s not right.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Inmates should be fed nourishing meals, offered medical care, provided with a safe environment and generally afforded the basic dignity that a civilized society assures for the incarcerated.
But cable TV? Think again.
Now, prepare yourselves — the Deadbeat State, which owes billions in delinquent bills, spends about $2.26 million a year on this luxury.
Those in Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration will tell you that it isn’t your tax dollars that are paying for this expensive entertainment.
They will tell you with a straight face that it’s actually paid for by the inmates themselves, coming out of profits from the prison commissary.
In other words, they say, the profit generated from selling Snickers candy bars, toothpaste, Oreo cookies and whatnot to the prisoners is enough to pay for the cable TV amenity.
To which I say, horse hockey.
Anyone who has covered a state budget for more than five minutes understands the concept of “fungibility.”
That’s a fancy accounting way of saying, “money can get moved around.”
The prisons’ commissary profits could be used for other purposes, such as helping, at least a little, to pay down that huge backlog of unpaid bills.
Those people who are waiting to be paid by the state, which owes its vendors roughly $6 billion (a figure that’s estimated to grow to $7.5 billion by this fall), are much more deserving of the money than prisoners wanting to watch the latest episode of “Jersey Shore.”
State Rep. Bill Mitchell (R-Forsyth) introduced a bill in the recently completed spring session of the Legislature to eliminate this unjustified perk for prisoners, but the bill stagnated in committee.
“I have constituents who have lost their jobs and are struggling to pay for cable television themselves. They are asking why they have to pay for inmates to watch TV,” Mitchell said. “Prison isn’t supposed to be a nice place where inmates sit around and watch Ricki Lake.”
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist-in-residence at the Illinois Policy Institute, a nonprofit research group that supports the free market and limited government.