June 7, 2012 Source : http://www.fayobserver.com
RALEIGH – A divided House committee agreed Wednesday to prohibit North Carolina death-row prisoners from watching television despite the warning by Central Prison’s warden that removing TVs could increase violence among the condemned inmates.
The measure is a direct response to a convicted killer’s letter – printed in a newspaper in January -in which he boasted of being a “gentleman of leisure” on death row, watching color TV and taking frequent naps. He wrote, “Kill me if you can, suckers.”
Republican Rep. Tim Moore, who is shepherding the bill through the House, said Danny Hembree’s letter was galling and caused a ruckus in Gaston County, where Hembree was convicted last year of killing a 17-year-old girl and dumping her body in South Carolina. Moore told the judiciary subcommittee hearing the bill none of the 156 prisoners awaiting execution should receive the TV privilege.
“To think he’s there watching TV, that other murderers are there watching television, having that benefit, that’s just not right,” said Moore, who lives in nearby Cleveland County. “Anything we can do to make death row a less pleasant place, we should.”
Moore said he and other legislators recently visited Central Prison, a maximum-security prison for male offenders where nearly all of the state’s death-row prisoners reside. The four women are at the N.C. Correctional Institution for Women, also in Raleigh.
Hembree is segregated from other death-row prisoners and doesn’t have access to TV, the state Division of Adult Correction said.
Central Prison Warden Kenneth Lassiter told the committee that television is a management tool for prisoners and its privilege is already limited. Lassiter said the bill, if approved, would have “the potential to escalate security issues at the facility.”
“It will create an environment that violence could increase due to the fact that the inmates are idle,” he said. “It’s an isolated situation on death row, so inmates don’t have the normal movement of other inmates inside the facility.”
Death-row inmates at Central Prison share common areas in housing pods where they can watch television.
Prisoners must purchase ear buds and a small radio to listen to the television audio over a certain frequency, division spokeswoman Pamela Walker said. A Central Prison prisoner committee makes recommendations to administrators about which shows they’d like to watch on over-the-air channels. Prison officials decide which shows are appropriate.
“They’re not living the life of luxury,” Lassiter said.
Several Democratic committee members voted against it, apparently in deference to Lassiter’s concerns. Rep. Jennifer Weiss, D-Wake, said she was worried about the effect the lack of television could have on the state workers staffing the prison.
“I hear regularly about the dangers they put themselves in every day to keep all of us safe,” Weiss said, adding she wants “to make sure whatever we do here doesn’t jeopardize their safety.”
The bill’s next stop is the House, where lawmakers are expected to weigh that warning against trying to make a get-tough statement on criminals.
A judge earlier this year declared a mistrial in another murder trial involving Hembree, who was accused of strangling another woman, storing her body in the basement of his mother’s home and later dumping the body and setting it on fire to cover up evidence.
Hembree, 50, mocked in his letter how what he called the very slim chances that he would be executed in the next 20 years.
“Is the public aware that I am a gentleman of leisure, watching color TV in the A.C., reading, taking naps at will, eating three well-balanced meals a day?” Hembree asked.
Hembree’s sister said later that his brother wrote another letter to his family that talks of his despair on death row.