Bill: No Free Cable in U.S. Prisons

WASHINGTON -A House bill introduced by Rep. Ric Keller (R-Fla.) would bar the government from spending taxpayer money to provide cable television or entertainment VCR tapes and records to inmates in federal prisons.

But a spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons said last week that no U.S. tax dollars are spent to provide cable TV to inmates held in 98 federal facilities.

Keller, who represents Orlando and other portions of central Florida, introduced the "No Frills Prison Act" on Feb. 6, about a month after he was sworn in as a freshman congressman and assigned to the Subcommittee on Crime.

Keller, 36, won a narrow victory in November after accusing Democratic opponent Linda Chapin of providing padded furniture and cable TV to local prisoners when she was Orange County chairman. Chapin denied the charge.

Keller spokesman Bryan Malenius said the lawmaker believes cable TV is a luxury that should not be financed by federal taxpayers. He said Keller's bill (HR 458) would not bar federal prisoners from watching free, over-the-air broadcasting or from viewing training and educational VCR tapes.

"It's just something he doesn't think is right. That's why he introduced the measure," Malenius said. "If they want to buy VCRs for education programs, that's excluded from this bill. This bill is strictly for entertainment purposes."

Keller's bill would affect fewer than 10 percent of the people behind bars.

According to the Justice Department, the federal prison system has about 147,000 inmates. Nationally, 2 million people are behind bars and another 4.5 million are on probation or parole.

Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Traci Billingsley said cable, satellite TV and rental videos are available in federal prison, but inmates pay for these services from trust accounts that include proceeds from vending machines, cafeterias, and money received from relatives.

But Malenius pointed to a 1994 bureau regulation that apparently authorized the use of tax monies to purchase basic cable service.

Keller also wants to bar inmates from using their own funds to obtain cable, claiming that the money should go to crime victims first, Malenius said.

The American Civil Liberties Union is opposed to the bill and maintains that prisoners should have access to entertainment, vocational and educational services.

"It's just an easy way for policymakers to look like they are being tough on crime when they are just being mean to prisoners," said Kara Gotsch, a spokeswoman for the ACLU's National Prison Project.