Every time I visit a state prison for a story, I’m filled with wonderment at what I see.
It’s not the steel bars, concrete walls or men and women locked in their cells that catch my attention. It’s what they are doing: Watching TV.
And not just your standard TV programs – but cable television.
And guess who is paying for it? Illinois taxpayers.
I know lots of people too poor to purchase 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 – such as books.
And yet, folks who pinch their own 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, live in a safe environment, and be afforded the dignity a civilized society provides the incarcerated.
But cable TV? Think again.
The state spends $2.26 million a year on this luxury.
Folks in Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration will tell you it isn’t tax dollars paying for this entertainment.
In fact, they will tell you with a straight face that it’s paid for by the inmates themselves – with commissary profits.
In other words, they say, profits from selling Snickers bars, toothpaste, Oreos and whatnot to prisoners pays for this 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 commissary profits in question could be used for other purposes, such as helping pay down the state’s backlog of bills.
Those people waiting to be paid by the state – which owes its vendors billions – are more deserving of the money than an inmate sitting in his cell wanting to watch the latest episode of “Jersey Shore.”
State Rep. Bill Mitchell, R-Forsyth, introduced legislation this year to eliminate this inmate perk, but the bill stagnated in committee.
“I have constituents who have lost their jobs and are struggling to pay for cable television themselves,” Mitchell said. “They are asking why they have to pay for inmates to watch TV. 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. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.