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Inmate Sues N.C. Department of Prisons for Refusing to Approve “Black-Oriented” TV Networks like BET

— June 16, 2019

Inmate Maurice Williamson says BET selections are censored for being “too violent,” but that prison officials have no problem with programs like Breaking Bad.

A North Carolina inmate is suing the state department of corrections, claiming its refusal to offer prisoners access to African-American-oriented channels like BET is a violation of his constitutional rights.

According to the News Observer, the complaint was filed by Maurice Williamson.

Williamson, who’s classified as a habitual felon and serving a 12-year sentence, is currently incarcerated at the Tabor Correctional Institution in West Tabor City, North Carolina. His suit targets N.C. Department of Prisons Director Kenneth Lassiter, along with a handful of district court officials.

Williamson claims that black Tabor City inmates have long been petitioning for BET. A coalition of African-American detainees purportedly signed off on such a document in April but were later denied.

While the Department of Prisons appears averse to BET, the lawsuit notes that inmates are allowed to subscribe to and watch networks like TNT, AMC and Fox Discovery—all of which air programs with comparably Caucasian viewerships.

The News Observer quotes Williamson as saying that  offering “white” programming amounts “to an advantage or favor […] to some and not others.”

Image of a law gavel
Prison officials previously claimed that Williamson can’t make complaints over non-necessary, privilege-type items like television entertainment. Law Gavel; image courtesy of Activedia via Pixabay,

Consequently, his suit asks “that black networks be granted and treated no differently than the [sic] treat the other networks.”

However, the Department of Prisons maintains that programming on BET is more graphic and more violent than of its counterparts.

“The channel being banned has nothing to do with any of the classifications of which you speak,” a DPS or courts representative wrote in April. “Furthermore, there would be a valid complaint by others if the [BET] channel was offered due to it not being for all audiences and just a specific race.”

Network selections in North Carolina prisons are determined by inmates, who vote on their preferences. Tallies and choices are gauged by staff, with appropriate options approved and the rest denied.

Yet Williamson notes there’s some hypocrisy: inmates, paradoxically, are allowed to watch episodes of ‘Breaking Bad,’ which centers around a high school chemistry teacher manufacturing meth. Similar shows, like ‘American Horror Story,’ have been approved for viewing, despite also portraying acts of violence.

The News Observer adds that life in North Carolina’s prisons varies based upon an offender’s classification. For Williamson, a so-called ‘habitual felon,’ routinization is common, with harsh restrictions placed upon the number of visitors inmates can receive. In February, the D.P.S. implemented new rules specifying who can and cannot send prisoners money.

Williamson’s past complaints over BET have been rejected—inmates are apparently only allowed to petition D.P.S. over matters pertaining to food, clothing and medical care.

Television preferences, conversely, are regarded as privileges rather than fundamental rights.


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