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Death row inmates under television blackout

Opponents say state is ignoring a tool to control the condemned

Houston Chronicle, September 5, 2004


Texas death row inmates can keep these items in their cells:
Miscellaneous: radios, fans, hot pots, typewriters, religious and legal materials, mail, art supplies, and books
Games: chess and checkers boards; inmates can play by numbering the positions on the boards and shouting their moves to each other.

A proposal to give death row inmates access to television is getting poor reception from the head of the state prison system's board of directors.

Of the 38 states that have capital punishment, Texas is the only one that does not allow condemned prisoners at least limited access to TV, say attorneys with the Texas American Civil Liberties Union. They also are the only Texas inmates who aren't allowed some amount of viewing time, a privilege that some experts believe helps ease behavior problems.

The ban doesn't appear likely to change in the near future, say ACLU officials, who can't get the chairwoman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice to even discuss the subject.

In May, ACLU prison project litigation director Yolanda Torres attempted to broach the idea in a letter to Chairwoman Christina Melton Crain.

"We believe it is significant that every other death row in the country has successfully developed and implemented policies and practices that allow death row prisoners access to television, while at the same time maintaining the safety and security of their employees and institutions," Torres wrote.

Crain responded two months later that the issue was not open for debate.

"I appreciate the passion and energy that you bring to matters for which you advocate," Crain wrote. "But as the Board and the current Administration do not wish to entertain this issue further, dialogue between you and me on this subject is now closed."

Crain did not respond to requests from the Houston Chronicle for an interview. However, through a spokesman, she e-mailed a brief statement.

"The Texas Department of Criminal Justice does not provide television privileges to offenders (on) ... death row," she stated, "and the board of criminal justice has no plans to amend this policy."

Stark difference

Life on death row has been drastically different since 1999, when the condemned inmates were moved from the Ellis Unit in Huntsville, where they were allowed to watch television, to what is now the Polunsky Unit in Livingston.

Privileges for death row inmates were reduced to the level of administrative segregation, or solitary confinement.

Now condemned prisoners are confined for 23 hours each day in their cells, which measure 6 1/2 feet by 10 feet. They receive one hour of daily recreation, either in an inside recreation yard or outdoor recreation area. They also receive their meals in their cells, are escorted to showers once daily and are escorted to the infirmary if they need medical care.

Death row inmates no longer participate in work programs

They can be interviewed by the news media on Wednesdays and are allowed to meet with their attorneys Monday through Friday and occasionally on weekends through special arrangement.

Condemned inmates also may have visits from approved spiritual advisers and one general visit per week for a two-hour period. That period can be extended if a visitor has traveled more than 300 miles.

Death row prisoners also can receive newspapers and magazines through subscriptions and are allowed to spend $75 every 14 days in the unit's commissary on hygiene supplies and snacks.

Some don't see problem

The lack of TV viewing time is just fine with victims' rights activists.

"Convicted felons lose certain rights and privileges, and even more so for death row inmates," said Andy Kahan, victims' rights advocate for the city of Houston. "The pain, misery and grief that death row inmates have caused, committing some of the worst crimes known to mankind, should not be rewarded."

Kahan suggests that the inmates take out Book of the Month Club memberships and be required to write monthly book reports.

Dianne Clements of the group Justice For All adds that death row's configuration would require putting TV sets in individual cells.

That, she says, would provide another hiding place for contraband and source for makeshift weapons. On Aug. 18, condemned murderer Jorge Salinas stabbed a prison guard 13 times with a metal rod from a typewriter. The guard was not seriously injured.

But the ACLU's Torres contends that, if 37 other prison systems found ways to provide TV access for death row, Texas officials should be able to do so.

Another supporter of TV on death row is Chase Riveland, the former director of the state prison systems in Washington and Colorado. H says some degree of access to television can be an important tool for keeping prisoners in line.

"In most jurisdictions, in order to have a television, an inmate has to have a good disciplinary record," said Riveland, now a consultant who has 36 years of correctional experience.

"If the inmates know they're going to lose their television if they misbehave, they're going to be very cautious about it, especially if they're in a lockdown situation (as in Texas), because that's their only real connection with the real world."

Riveland added that, in most other states, inmates' families pay for the TV sets.

"I can't even fathom why one wouldn't want to use such an inexpensive tool," he said.

He also suggests that the use of televisions on death row might actually ensure that inmates are mentally fit to be executed.

If kept in isolation, he said, "the odds of inmates becoming mentally ill are greatly enhanced."

"That, of course, then leads to all types of challenges against whether you can execute them," Riveland said. "And so, by not having televisions or other means of keeping them mentally alert, it may add to the taxpayer drain through additional litigation."

Reconsideration request

Texas ACLU Executive Director Will Harrell recently asked Crain to reconsider her "summary dismissal" of the organization's attempt to discuss the TV issue with prison officials.

Meredith Martin Rountree, the Texas ACLU's prison project director, believes Crain's decision is based on misguided popular opinion.

"TDCJ's job is not to pander to public misunderstandings and misconceptions about criminal justice," Rountree said.

"Its job is to run a safe and constitutional prison system and to make decisions based on sound, penological justifications.

"Every death row in the country has not only investigated this issue but has found that televisions are good management tools," Rountree said. "Why is TDCJ different?"

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