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How Much Is A TV In Prison: The Reality of Prison Televisions

Televisions are a common fixture in most American households. However, when someone is incarcerated, access to televisions becomes a privilege that must be earned through good behavior. This article will examine the policies surrounding televisions in prison, including how much they cost, what channels are available, and how vital they are to an inmate’s daily life. With over 2 million people behind bars in the United States, understanding the role of televisions in correctional facilities provides insight into our criminal justice system.

Prison TV Policies and Costs

The availability and types of televisions that prisoners can access depends on the policies of the specific facility they are housed in. Access is generally considered a privilege for inmates who avoid disciplinary infractions, rather than a right.

Federal Prisons

In federal prisons, inmates are allowed to purchase a 13-inch black and white television for their cell after 90 days without any violations. These small TVs cost around $150 at the commissary. After one year without infractions, prisoners can pay to upgrade to a 21-inch color television, which run $250-$350.

State Prisons

State prisons have their own policies, but commonly allow prisoners to buy TVs after 30 days. Costs are similar, around $100 for a small black and white unit, and up to $400 for a 21-32 inch color TV. Some states, like New York, prohibit televisions for inmates in solitary confinement.


County jails usually do not allow prisoners to have individual TVs, but provide them in common areas. Jails also tend to have stricter censorship of what channels are available compared to prisons. This is because jails house defendants awaiting trial, who have not yet been convicted.

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Limited Channel Selection

The number of approved channels available to inmates is extremely limited for several reasons:

Security Concerns

Prison officials restrict certain channels or programs that could pose security threats. For example, channels covering criminal activity, violence, or law enforcement may be blocked to prevent inmates gathering intel. Educational channels are prioritized.

Budget Constraints

Public prisons do not allocate much funding for television programming. They opt for basic cable packages to save on costs. Subscribing to premium channels is rare even in minimum security facilities.


Channels with sexually explicit, vulgar, or obscene content are blocked in correctional facilities. Officials aim to rehabilitate prisoners and limit exposure to morally questionable influences. Reality shows featuring partying, drama and fighting are also prohibited.

Educational offerings like Discovery, History Channel and PBS are staples. Sports like ESPN provide a diversion for inmates. But beyond that, prison TV selection is sparse compared to home viewing.

Importance of TV Time

While prison TV policies may seem strict, television time is still extremely valued by those incarcerated. Here’s why:


Television provides a much-needed form of entertainment to pass the time for inmates. Whether watching movies, sports or game shows, TV transports prisoners briefly out of the stark reality of prison life. Taking away television is an effective disciplinary tactic.

Information Source

TV offers a window into current events and news. Prisons restrict internet access, so television serves as a vital information conduit. Staying informed helps inmates feel connected to society.

Habit and Normalcy

Watching TV is a habit for most Americans. Allowing television provides inmates some sense of normalcy behind bars. Maintaining routines and pastimes from regular life can benefit prisoner mental health and reform.

Social Outlet

In crowded facilities, inmates often share a common TV room. This creates a communal setting for prisoners to bond over shows. Sports events also unite inmates cheering together. Televisions provide social outlets to prevent isolation.

While security and cost concerns limit prison televisions, they remain important for inmate morale, reform and rehabilitation. Removing TV access punishes prisoners severely by stripping away entertainment, information, normal routines and socialization. Despite restrictions, TV time is still treasured behind bars.

Notable Crimes and TV Restrictions

While well-behaved inmates eventually earn television privileges, those who commit serious crimes often face severe restrictions. Here are some recent high-profile cases and the limits placed on their TV access:

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James Holmes – Aurora Theater Shooting

  • Crime: Killed 12 people and injured 70 in a mass shooting at a Colorado movie theater in 2012.
  • Sentence: 12 life sentences without parole + 3,318 years
  • TV Restriction: Banned from having television or any electronics in his cell.

Dylann Roof – Charleston Church Shooting

  • Crime: Murdered 9 African Americans during a bible study session at a church in Charleston, SC in 2015.
  • Sentence: Death sentence.
  • TV Restriction: Can only view religious programming on a small black and white TV.

Larry Nassar – Gymnastics Sex Abuse

  • Crime: Sexually abused over 150 young female gymnasts over 20+ years as a team doctor.
  • Sentence: 60 years in federal prison.
  • TV Restriction: Banned from TV, internet, computer or any electronics.

Nikolas Cruz – Marjory Stoneman Douglas Shooting

  • Crime: Killed 17 people in a 2018 mass shooting at his former high school in Parkland, FL.
  • Sentence: Life without parole.
  • TV Restriction: Banned from video games, cell phone, internet and external media.

Jodi Arias – Murdered Boyfriend Travis Alexander

  • Crime: Stabbed and shot her boyfriend to death in 2008.
  • Sentence: Life without parole.
  • TV Restriction: Banned from TV during disciplinary stints in maximum security solitary confinement.

While even well-behaved prisoners have limited television access, inmates who commit heinous crimes often face total bans on TV and other electronics. Their privileges reflect the severity of their offenses against society.

Quotes on Losing TV Privileges

To demonstrate how highly inmates view television access, here are quotes from prisoners reacting to losing their TV privileges as punishment:

“Taking away my TV felt worse than losing meal privileges. I really depend on it to get through the long days stuck in a tiny cell. Not knowing what was happening in the outside world made me feel isolated and restless.” – David R., inmate at Rikers Island

“I got banned from watching sports after a fight. Missing the NBA playoffs was pure torture. I really lived for those games to feel bonded with the outside world. My mental health spiraled until I could watch again.” – Michael B., inmate at San Quentin Prison

“When my TV time was taken away for 6 weeks, I felt completely cut off from society. Just staring at the walls with nothing but my thoughts was maddening. TV helps me cope with doing so much time behind bars.” – Luke T., inmate at Sing Sing Correctional Facility

“As punishment I lost my television for 60 days. The boredom and lack of stimulation made me depressed. I’ll do anything to avoid losing my TV again. I need it to keep me sane in here.” – Jose P., inmate at Folsom State Prison

These firsthand accounts highlight how essential television access is to the daily lives of incarcerated individuals. Losing this privilege is a severe sentence worse than isolation or poor diet.

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Can inmates watch whatever they want on TV?

No, prisons restrict channels and programs deemed inappropriate or dangerous. Educational shows and sports are commonly approved, while sexually explicit, violent, or criminal content is banned.

Do prisoners have cable TV?

Most prisons only allow basic cable packages to save on costs. Inmates do not have access to premium channels like HBO or Showtime. Some facilities only permit over-the-air antenna channels.

Are prisoners allowed to watch the news?

It depends on the prison policies, but many do permit reasonable access to national news channels like CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, etc. Local news may be prohibited to prevent inmates gathering intelligence.

Can inmates use streaming services like Netflix or Hulu?

No. Prisons restrict internet access which prohibits streaming services. All television is through standard cable programming approved by each facility. Inmates cannot choose shows on-demand.

Do maximum security prisons allow TVs?

Some do, but with far greater restrictions. Individual cells may not have TVs. Maximum security facilities are more likely to only permit communal viewing in rec rooms of specific curated content. However, disciplinary action can still revoke even this limited access.


While television is taken for granted on the outside, it becomes a highly valued privilege within the stark confines of a correctional facility. Prison policies allow well-behaved inmates to purchase TVs after set periods, but access remains extremely limited compared to home viewing. Educational and sports programming provide approved distractions. Losing television is harsh punishment that isolates prisoners mentally and emotionally.

Yet despite restrictions, TV supplies inmates with entertainment, information, normalcy and socialization to help them cope with confinement. Understanding the technology’s complicated role in prison reveals its importance in the outside world as well. Whether on our living room couches, or crowding before a bolted down box, television links all of humanity through shared experience.

Prison Inside Team

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About us

We are dedicated to exploring the intricacies of prison life and justice reform through firsthand experiences and expert insights.

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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