Inmates to be allowed MP3 players but will restrict music by Kevin Johnson

Posted: March 8, 2012 in News and politics

Federal prison inmates will be allowed one more very personal item that had been traditionally checked at the door when they began serving hard time: music.

  • David Fathi, right, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, speaks at the National Press Club in this 2004 file photo.By Susan Walsh, AP file photo

    David Fathi, right, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, speaks at the National Press Club in this 2004 file photo.

By Susan Walsh, AP file photo

David Fathi, right, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, speaks at the National Press Club in this 2004 file photo.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons is unveiling a program that will allow many of its more than 200,000 inmates to carry MP3 players, packed with personalized music lists, to pass the time.

The music program, currently being tested at a women’s unit in West Virginia, is expected to expand to the rest of the system this year, bureau spokeswoman Traci Billingsley says.

The devices, ubiquitous in the free world, will be sold in prison commissaries.

There is an important catch: Although inmates can choose from a song list of about 1 million titles, the list will be monitored to exclude “explicit” tracks, including material such as obscene or racially charged language.

Billingsley says the bureau will cull the list according to a content ratings system already established by the Recording Industry Association of America. In addition, she says, the prison agency can “prohibit a title that it determines may disrupt the good and orderly running of the institution.”

“The MP3 program is intended to help inmates deal with issues such as idleness, stress and boredom associated with incarceration,” Billingsley says, adding that “keeping inmates constructively occupied is essential to the safety” of prison staffers and prisoners.

David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, which advocates for inmate rights, says the music program is perhaps the first of its kind in the country and represents a “positive step” toward improving prison security and providing inmates a needed link to the outside world. Music, he says, “allows for an important connection (with life on the outside) that assists with their eventual re-entry” to society.

Not everybody is applauding. Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Judiciary Committee‘s ranking Republican, says it is “difficult to see how all of the necessary safeguards can be put into place to stop prisoners from using MP3 players as bargaining chips or other malicious devices. … It appears to be a risky endeavor and raises a lot of questions that need to be answered.”

Dale Deshotel, national president of the Council of Prison Locals, says members — prison guards and other corrections staffers — also have concerns about the program’s operation, but he did not elaborate.

Billingsley says inmates will not have access to the Internet. The program will be managed within an internal computer system, allowing prisoners to scan the available titles, listen to samples and download them to their devices. No taxpayer money will be used, she says.

Contributing: Brad Heath

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