ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. On February 17th, television stations across the country will turn off their analog signals and begin broadcasting only in digital. And to educate people about the switch, the federal government has set aside millions of dollars. The government has even provided coupons for converter boxes for people who don't subscribe to cable or satellite TV. But that assistance is not going to prisons. They rely on TV to keep inmates occupied. From member station WHQR, Catherine Welch reports.

CATHERINE WELCH: The Johnston Correctional Institution is a medium-security prison in rural North Carolina. Every week, an inmate committee meets to craft the list of television shows for everyone to watch. The list gets handed to prison employee Timothy Jones(ph), whose job it is to program the facility's nearly 60 television sets.

Mr. TIMOTHY JONES (Employee, Johnston Correctional Institution): During the weekdays, you have your "Jerry Springer"-type things, "Young and the Restless" during the day - soap opera fans. (Laughing) They are some soap opera.

WELCH: Prisoner Howard Dudley(ph) used to be one of those soap opera fans, now he just watches church services on Sunday morning. Still, he says, it's impossible to escape the most popular soap, "The Young and the Restless."

Mr. HOWARD DUDLEY (Inmate, Johnston Correctional Institution): That's a program that you never have problem with anybody complaining. Everybody into it, you know, everybody into Victor Newman. He's a tough tycoon.

WELCH: Whatever prisoners are watching, some prison officials see inmates vegging in front of the tube as one of the best ways to keep a lid on things. North Carolina's head of prisons, Boyd Bennett.

Mr. BOYD BENNETT (Director, Prisons, North Carolina Department of Corrections): Let's say, for example, there were no televisions. I believe you'd have more inmate violence. You'd have more assaults from one inmate against another. You'll have more assaults on staff. I think we'd have to have more security staff.

WELCH: In lieu of more staff, prisons find TV works as both a pacifier and incentive. Terry Kupers studies the mental health of inmates at the Wright Institute, a private psychology graduate school in Berkeley, California. He says a successful return to the general population hinges on a prisoner's contact with the outside world.

Dr. TERRY KUPERS (Psychiatrist, Wright Institute): They don't have much social contact, and they don't have much contact with outsiders. At least with television, they know what's going on in the world.

WELCH: And at least over the air, TV is free, but not for long. Come February, broadcasters across the nation will switch their signals from analog to digital. After that, prisons without cable or satellite are going to need converter boxes to bring those soap operas or the news to inmates. And there are a lot of prisons that either can't afford cable or are too remote to get it.

The federal government has provided millions of dollars in help to viewers at home for coupons that can cut the cost of a converter box in half. But as South Carolina and other states have discovered, legislation mandating the digital switch excludes prisons from the coupon program.

Mr. JON OZMINT (Director, South Carolina Department of Corrections): When we asked whether or not we would be eligible for the coupons and they said, no, they're only available to - I think the term they used was "households," I told my folks to call them back and tell them we are the big house. We're a big household. And they didn't like that.

WELCH: Instead, the Feds told Jon Ozmint, the head of South Carolina's Department of Corrections, to ask his employees to donate their coupons. Many of them have, and this is helping Ozmint cut costs as he tackles a $23-million shortfall in his budget. He's already cut the number of stamps a prisoner gets each week, and he may be forced to release inmates early. Now, Ozmint has to find $200,000 to keep the tube on.

Mr. OZMINT: It's easy to say, well, you should put them out in the yard busting up rocks, but one officer can't watch 175 inmates busting up rocks.

WELCH: Some South Carolina prisoners are buying their own digital sets, but to buy converter boxes, other states are dipping into an account funded by inmate purchases of such things as shaving cream and magazines to buy converter boxes. That's how North Carolina, Texas and Massachusetts are paying for the digital transition, with Massachusetts shelling out $300,000.

Prison officials know that sounds like a lot of money to spend on television, but they say its value in keeping the peace, educating inmates and filling the time is worth every penny. They just wish the federal government could see it that way. For NPR News, I'm Catherine Welch.

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