Channel surfing behind bars is about to get more expensive.
Florida is poised to spend about $100,000 in tax money to upgrade 1,500 prison televisions so they'll work Feb. 17, when the nation switches from analog to digital broadcasts.
The expenditure — a fraction of the Florida Department of Corrections' nearly $2.3-billion budget — comes as education, social and health programs are being squeezed because of Florida's budget woes.
But corrections officials said the six-figure upgrade is justifiable because TV keeps inmates busy and helps ensure the safety of officers and guards.
"The department has so few tools available at their disposal to control inmates. Our inmate populations are bulging at the seams. With the cuts in personnel, the ratios are high," said state Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, chairman of the committee that oversees prison budgets.
But others say Florida can't afford digital TV for inmates when it faces a $4-billion budget shortfall. "Get rid of the 1,500 televisions. Give them a book," said Curtis Holmes, president of Taxpayers Association Inc. in Largo. "This is budget-cutting time. They cut hundreds of millions on education, but they want to put money in the prison system so that the prisoners get televisions."
The government is helping families with the cost of the switch to digital by providing $40 coupons for converter boxes. But jails and prisons can't get them.
Robert Weissert, director of communications for Florida TaxWatch, said the federal government should empty its pockets, not Florida taxpayers. "It's an example of another unfunded mandate from the federal government that puts pressures on the taxpayers in the state of Florida," Weissert said.
The Department of Corrections will have to purchase converters, priced at $40 to $70 each, for the upgrade.
The state plans to pay for the upgrade by using money from the same budget used to pay for schools, roads and hospitals. That budget gets revenue from inmate commissary sales, so prisoners are indirectly footing the bill for the upgrade, officials said when justifying the $100,000 expenditure.
Some county jails will have to pay for the upgrade, but it isn't an issue in counties that use cable or satellite systems.
Then there is Seminole County, which isn't spending a dime for a conversion at its jail. That's because the jail doesn't have any televisions. Lt. James Clark, a spokesman for the Seminole County Jail, said it got rid of televisions in 1995 because inmates argued about which channels to watch. "We don't want jail to be a fun place to be. We certainly don't want them to kick their feet up," Clark said.