Are so-called luxury items ever appropriate behind bars?

Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Tuesday ordered that new flat-screen TVs be removed from a facility for sex offenders. Are so-called luxury items ever appropriate behind bars?

Comments texted to MPR:

I was a correctional officer at Stillwater Prison in the late 80s. Some of the inmates were living better than the officers working there. An example was a program called “insight”. Selected inmates with great computer skills were allowed to have computers in their cells with full internet access. They would do accounting for million dollar companies. The inmates were financially compensated very well. Some inmates made $30,000 to $50,000a year. Cable televisions, nice gym facilities. I feel we as Minnesotans would rather spend our money on programs for law abiding citizens. Thank you. -Maurice, Eagan, MN

Are TV’s luxury items? Luxury is not appropriate but humane treatment is. In this day and age, TV is not a luxury. Cable is though. -Suzie, Minneapolis, MN

A prisoner should not have a new gadget unless the Governor has one already. -Greg, St. Paul, MN

Luxury items on my tax dollar, NO WAY. -Lisa

A good education certainly seems to be a luxury item. That is not only appropriate but necessary for our fellow citizens behind bars. –Kerry, Northfield, MN

No inmates should not have luxury items. They should be able to further themselves in education. People imprisoned should not have a piece of luxury that is not owned by even the poorest free person. -Cory Fitzgerald, New Ulm, MN

If tazers and staff equipment are a luxury, then yes. Otherwise, no. -anonymous

Up until a year ago i couldn’t afford a flat screen TV. Why should I and all tax payers pay for a luxury like that for any prisoner? I don’t like Pawlenty but I back him up on this one. -Mark

Share your reply in the comments: Are so-called luxury items ever appropriate behind bars?

  • kt

    I guess that depends on the definition of a “luxury item”. The most agreed upon definition of a “luxury good” would probably be items that have a price which increases above the normal income rate of increase. That is to say, expensive items for the sake of being expensive.

    So, if that is the case then “no” would be my answer to the question of the day, there is never a point where state/federal money should be spent on luxury items for Prisoners, or those on Parole.

    As for the In our current issue regarding the TVs: a TV can be looked at as a “necessity good” whereas a 50″ flat-screen LCD TV is a “luxury good”. It is within our best interest as a society to keep an incarcerated populations up-to-date with current news and access to education, but they can be given those options without spending to excess.

  • Curt

    Is television a luxury item? Having a diversion such as TV or music shouldn’t be thought of as a luxury. Removing them is nothing more than a political move by a Governor that is trying to keep his name in the public by proving that he’s a hard liner on more than health care. Will removal of books from correction facilities be his next newsmaker issue?

  • Dana Zniewski

    I believe that the inmates need televisions to keep them occupied for various reasons.

    I would like to know

    *what the installation cost is for the televisions and brackets, *the cost to remove them,

    *the cost for the new televisions and installation, and

    *the cost of the disposal of the large televisions,

    all with Union Labor costs to remove and install.

    With regard to the cost – who is the looser? THE TAXPAYER

    Don’t micro manage. Change policy so that it will not happen again.


  • Dana

    I believe that the inmates need televisions to keep them occupied for various reasons.

    I would like to know

    *what the installation cost is for the televisions and brackets, *the cost to remove them,

    *the cost for the new televisions and installation, and

    *the cost of the disposal of the large televisions,

    all with Union Labor costs to remove and install.

    With regard to the cost – who is the looser? THE TAXPAYER

    Don’t micro manage. Change policy so that it will not happen again.


  • James

    I believe that a prison sentence should be given in WATTS. For crime “X” your sentence will be “Y” Kilo WATTS. If you would like to watch TV while you peddle, row, run off your sentence… it will cost you the power to run it. If you work hard you get out early, if you don’t you will stay in eating oatmeal.

    Just think the prison might even be self-sufficient.

    This country needs simple answers.


  • Cheryl

    I have always thought TV’s in correctional facillities was a bad idea. Folks get sent there to rehabilitate, not to veg out in front of a screen. TV’s are a crutch for lazy correctional system policies.

  • Noel

    I think they should stay in the prisons. I agree with another post that states how much will it cost to remove all of these needs to be taken into consideration. I believe these type of items keep the inmates occupied and distracted which is probably safer for the guards and the prison.

  • Scott

    It is easy to forget that the people at this facility are not inmates. Although the people there have at some point committed a crime, they have already served their sentence. This facility is, at least nominally, a treatment center, and the patients are committed there, not as punishment, but, frankly, to keep them from committing future crimes.

    Preventive incarceration. Wrap your mind around that. Let them watch TV, for crying out loud.

  • Ralf W

    The real story here is that the people running this “treatment facility” do not know what they are doing! If you read the Strib story it’s pretty obvious: the people in charge claim the TVs are therapeutic, but the Strib asks a specialist and he can’t find any meaningful studies to support this claim.

    As so often happens with the Pawlenty administration, we get a program that is administered by people who are not fully competent. Think MnDot pre-Tom Sorrel. Or how about the other story today about embezzlement at DHS? His is not an administration that effectively gets the things done we expect of a well run government.

    And this facility is just a typical example. It isn’t really treating offenders – and has yet to release a single one. I talked with Alice Hausman last week about the bonding session, and she mentioned the sex offender treatment center. She has real questions about it’s efficacy and its about-to-explode costs.

    It is a Pawlenty boondoggle far greater than the plasma TVs that are getting the attention.

  • nancy

    This is the wrong questions to be asking. We should be asking ourselves (and policymakers) what we are doing to best prepare our prison population for re-entry. Let’s not debate over the rights of inmates to watch television, but instead debate how to best use the limited resources available to the corrections system to actually rehabilitate offenders and support them as they transition back into society.

  • cheryl

    No. These are sex offenders, people! Why should tax payer dollars go toward them when there is so much need out there. Maybe they should join the ranks of the other charitable institutions that have to beg for money. Maybe MN should take some lessons from AZ concerning treatment of social deviants.

  • Jim

    I was a little dismayed to see the story in the Star Tribune yesterday, since I think this is a lot of fuss over a relatively small matter. But newspapers get sold over fuss, so I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised.

    I am surprised to see MPR fanning the flames with a question about conditions “behind bars.” Simply reading the Star Tribune article it’s clear that this is not a prison and these are not inmates or prisoners. Should we have expensive flat screen TVs in hospitals? I don’t know, but I doubt that question would generate as much hysteria. Any state-run facility should be more conscious of how state dollars are spent, but the hype around this seems to have less to do with money and more to do with showing how much we want to continue punishing sex offenders even after their prison sentences are served.

    The state response to this issue is adding insult to injury, in my opinion. The governor has ordered the facility to remove the TVs, which will be replaced with smaller TVs. I doubt these used TVs can be sold for enough to cover the cost of removing the current TVs, buying new ones, and having them installed. But it certainly does give the governor an opportunity to look tough on several fronts.

  • Mike R

    I don’t think correctional facility inmates particularly need large screen TVs, but this so-called “issue” is just more political grandstanding by our absentee governor.

    I’m sure the TV ads for Pawlenty’s presidential primary run will feature this as evidence of his hard-line stance on criminals.

  • Rodney

    Inmates have access to healthcare which I dont because I am unemployed and cant afford it. This doesnt mean they shouldnt have healthcare, but I really dont feel I should also pay for their entertainment. Perhaps reading a book would do more for their rehabilitation than the garbage on TV. First time I have ever agreed with Tim P.

  • Tom

    I don’t mind that they have TVs and I don’t think Gov. Pawlenty thinks TVs are luxury items. $2200 flat screen TVs are luxury items.

    Luxury items are NOT necessary in this environment. Incarceration shouldn’t be enjoyable. It should be hard to experience and the focus put on rehabilitation. Inmates should not want to come back and they should be motivated to do everything in their power to stay out.

  • Hank Fukui

    I wonder how many poeple realize that inmates pay for everything from basic personal hygene supplies, TV cable, electric fans, etc.. with very inflated prices. Also, any money send by family members are charged a fee of 10%. They pay very high telephone bills($2 per minute), and work for 25 cents per hour. Someone is making money. Why not supply a good TV for them to watch.

  • Mike R

    I don’t think correctional facility inmates particularly need large screen TVs, but this so-called “issue” is just more political grandstanding by our absentee governor.

    I’m sure the TV ads for Pawlenty’s presidential primary run will feature this as evidence of his hard-line stance on criminals.

  • Roger

    Who do we put “behind bars”?; and, What do we hope to accomplish? We imprison—or civilly commit—persons whose conduct has hurt, threatened or offended us. We intend for this imprisonment to achieve two basic things: 1) declare our values/shame the perpetrator/deter similar conduct by others; and, 2) protect society from future misconduct by the offender.

    When we provide “luxuries” to inmates, what effect do we have on these aims? We slightly lessen the shaming aspect of incarceration. And we slightly improve the rehabilitation environment. The effects are not profound, but they are symbolic. They symbolize the issues of being “tough” or “not tough” on crime, and providing “humane” or “inhumane” treatment.

    To my mind, 12 big TV’s for 400 civilly-committed patients is not much of a luxury. If the sets last 5 years, the cost, per person, per year, will be $30. So money really isn’t the issue.

    The real question is: How do we best protect society and rehabilitate sex offenders? I think we do it through humane treatment. That includes NOT distorting and making a huge issue of the hospital’s minor expenditures.

    By labeling the hospital’s purchase “boneheaded” and demanding its reversal, Governor Pawlenty has distorted the issue and demonized the facility. His small act of inhumanity will negatively impact the rehabilitative atmosphere. The symbolic stance taken by the Governor will hamper treatment efforts, increase costs, and worsen outcomes.

    Shame on the State of Minnesota for its short-sightedness and insensitivity.

  • Paul

    I suppose it depends on who is doing the “so-calling”. For a lot of people, not doing hard labor is a luxury. For others, not watching TV is a luxury.

  • Chris

    This is just another example of Governor Pawlenty trying to play to his base and raise his national profile.

    If he had serious concerns about Public Spending, he would work with the legislature to resolve real issues.

  • susan stanich

    Many news outlets, including MPR today, refer to this hospital as a prison. With good reason: Nobody gets treated and nobody has been released. Since the residents’ civil rights have been removed, apparently forever, I have no problem with them getting big-screen TVs. It’s characteristic of our mean-spirited governor that an issue like this is the sort that attracts him from his presidential race.

  • Jim

    As Hank pointed out, inmates or their families pay for everything. Money sent to an inmate looses 10% from the original amount. The state takes it. There is not enough money to rehabilitate everyone so some get it and some don’t. Luck of the draw. As far a health care mentioned by Rodney who made it sound like they just go to the doctor anytime they want, which is not the case. If the state can’t afford to educate and rehabilitate, they might as well spend the money on TV’s. Thanks Nancy, you said it well.

  • Dee

    I don’t have the exact numbers but I believe the total cost of the twelve TV’s is less than the ccst of incarcerating two individuals for one year.

  • Dan

    If a sex offender raped a girl so bad she can’t live, get up, go in public or watch movies and TV because of being assaulted. Should we provide this offender with any comfortable amenities? They don’t need to watch TV, then need to dig ditches, haul lumber, make small rock out of big rocks, work them the rest of their lives. Just like we should be doing with prisoner.

  • Nicole

    I guess I don’t know what they are permitted to watch on these televisions….. but with how sexualized and violent our media culture is, I would venture to guess it probably wouldn’t be good for their treatment or recovery for sex offenders to be watching anything on a televison, regardless of how nice the tv may be.

  • Jamie

    I don’t know why MPR’s writer says “so-called.” He or she or they are expressing their own opinions by saying that. Of course, extra-large tvs are luxury items — for anybody. Nobody needs an extra-large tv, let alone 24 of them. The Strib said Moose Lake staff say it’s therapeutic for the inmates to watch tv in group settings rather than in their cells. That is ridiculous. I can’t imagine how sitting and staring at a tv is supposed to be therapeutic, whether done in a group or alone.

    One of my main concerns, though, is what the inmates are watching. Television is rife with shows that depict women as sex objects, and with shows that glorify sexual violence. Letting the inmates watch shows like that is antithetical to therapy for perpetrators of sexual violence.

    And I believe that most of the inmates SHOULD be there indefinitely. There’s a very high recidivism rate among sex offenders, and I’m so tired of hearing about women and children being assaulted and killed by these guys who got out of prison early on good behavior, or who were not monitored by the parole system.

  • Jamie

    I just thought of something. It COULD be therapeutic for the inmates who are more advanced in their treatment to watch, as a group, a show containing sexual violence, and then talk about it afterward as a group (led by a therapist). If the tvs were used to increase media literacy and critical viewing, it might be worthwhile, but even then they wouldn’t need fancy tvs.

  • Jamie

    Aren’t all tvs flat-screen tvs these days?

  • William

    Government spending money on luxury items is never appropriate, be they for prisoners or politicians. However, it is unrealistic to assert that something like televisions are ‘luxury’ items. What else are we going to see labeled as ‘luxury’? Newspapers? Magazines? Radio?

  • Tim

    The only luxury item anyone behind bars, (or in that so-called “treatment” facility), should be a flush toilet.

  • S in MSP

    “Luxury” is a pretty subjective concept. What someone might deem a luxury might be a piece of trying to make sure a prisoner can be reintegrated into society later. Connection to the outside work is a part of that.

    Merely warehousing people under boring and idle conditions isn’t a good way to make a safer society and isn’t cost effective in the long run. Most people in prison will leave someday and we need to ensure that they are better able to care for themselves and be productive members of society.

    I don’t really care about TV’s, but real education programs, job training and social activities are imperative to reduce recidivism and decrease long run costs. Tough love is seductive, but a lack of positive programs to decrease the return rate of prisoners and foolish mandatory sentencing structures are resulting in more money being spent on prisons with worse outcomes for society.

    Nothing is cheaper in this case then a person who never returns to prison even if the initial cost is higher. Pawlenty is just pandering to the law and order right-wing basis who have little interest in efficacy or programs designed based on facts. They want cruelty and they want it now.

  • Nicole

    Everyone keeps talking about “our tax dollars” and “government funding”……. but this isn’t a DOC facility so our tax dollars didn’t pay for the tvs or anything else in this facility…. maaaybe do a little more digging to better understand the situation/topic before you spout off about things that aren’t even relevant.

  • Jean

    If sex offender treatment was “treatment” and state money was applied to this instead of warehousing these guys . . . Take a look at where Pawlenty’s interests lie. Not in the sex offender program being run well but his run for president and looking good. We don’t need more facility we need treatment in the state of MN!

  • Debo

    Sure they need things to distract them, like a gym and TV and even computers. But they should NOT be getting the biggest and the best and they should definitely NOT have that stuff in their own individual cell for personal use. Those items should be available in group areas that are monitored and controlled… just like we do with school children.

    In fact, buy new computers for the schools and then donate the old ones to the prisons. That’s a much better way to spend money.

    Someone mentioned in their comment about Education being a luxury item and necessary. I agree that education is a necessity and should be provided. However, it is sad to think it is classified as a luxury in today’s world (especially in the USA). Education should be seen as an essential.