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THE HISTORY CHANNEL BEHIND BARS

Sheriff Joseph Gerace is entitled to run the Chautauqua County Jail as he sees fit, but we can't help but wonder whether the recent restrictions imposed on inmates will help or hinder his efforts.

For instance, Gerace has banned talk-show host Jerry Springer and MTV. Springer can be a bit radical -- no, make that utterly without redeeming social value. But whether Springer or MTV is likely to incite prisoners is another question.

Taking away certain television shows and replacing them with the History Channel and the Learning Channel is not likely to educate inmates. We have a feeling their clientele isn't in jail in the first place.

We don't disagree with Gerace's statement that jail is not a country club. And MTV and talk shows should not be counted as a constitutional right. The question is whether MTV and Springer keep inmates occupied instead of bored and looking for trouble.

The same question could be asked about Gerace's decision to prohibit basketball games. While we understand the sheriff's concern with the escalating violence of the games -- some of them got so rough that injuries resulted -- it seems there would be a benefit to giving inmates an outlet for their energy.

More radical is his decision to return to black-and-white stripes that were standard attire for inmates up until the 1950s. The one-piece uniforms will prevent inmates from wearing their pants below the belt line and exposing their underwear. Current fashion apparently permeates prison walls. If only that rule could be implemented on the outside.

Perhaps the strangest edict is switching inmates to pink underwear. Gerace explained that pink underwear eliminates any dispute about who the underwear belongs to once an inmate leaves. Plus, he doesn't have to purchase as much underwear because, curiously enough, inmates choose to wear their own.

Jail ought not to be a pleasant experience. However, Gerace may be pushing the envelope a bit too far. Northeastern University sociologist Jack Levin seems to think so. The pink underwear, in particular, he said is a clear case of trying to shame and humiliate inmates. The sole purpose appears aimed at exacting a measure of revenge.

It's not that we have undue sympathy for the inmates. But should Gerace's efforts be seen by inmates as outright attempts to humiliate them, the resulting anger may make life more difficult than it already is for jail employees, particularly the guards.

Rules meant solely to embarrass and degrade inmates should be taken with caution. Jail is not a country club; but it's long since changed from a place where inmates are routinely humiliated.

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