Captive Audience: The Music Business in America’s Prisons


From Spin Magazine:

For decades, most corrections departments allowed inmates to purchase CDs or cassettes through approved outside vendors — sometimes the same vendors who sold them toothpaste, shampoo, and hairbrushes. But now, at least a dozen states and some federal prisons offer inmates the opportunity to buy special prison-issue MP3 players and download music through systems, informally called “Music Wardens,” designed specifically for prison use. According to Brian Wittrup, operations manager for the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections in Ohio, it took awhile to make the change from CDs to MP3s, mostly due to institutional technophobia.

“In general, a good rule of thumb is that prisons are usually about ten years behind regular society when it comes to technology,” he says. But once Ohio made the switch five years ago, the advantages of digital music quickly became clear.

“First of all: Control,” he says. “Music that promotes violence or gang activity or is inflammatory or derogatory toward particular races is banned inside of our prisons. With MP3 players, you have the ability to select the songs that inmates can download, so it gives us the ability to control the songs that they have. We base it on Parental Advisory warnings, but we actually have a committee that evaluates all types of media. Secondly, CDs and cassettes [Yes, some facilities still use cassettes — see this story] have to be mailed in from external vendors, and that was a very big avenue for the importation of illegal drugs and things like that. So this eliminates the possible introduction of contraband. The other big benefit is that space is limited inside of prisons, so normally an inmate could only be allowed maybe 10, 15, 20 CDs or cassettes. Now they can have players that are 8 gigs. That’s a lot of songs.”

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