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No BET on prison TV: Inmate sues for discrimination

James Blackmon will get a new hearing in the case of the 1979 murder at St. Augustine’s College, for which he is serving a life sentence.
James Blackmon will get a new hearing in the case of the 1979 murder at St. Augustine’s College, for which he is serving a life sentence. Stock image

A inmate in Columbus County has filed a federal lawsuit arguing his prison violates his constitutional rights by banning BET and other cable TV channels aimed at African-American viewers.

Maurice Williamson, who is serving a 12-year-sentence as a habitual felon at Tabor Correctional Institution in West Tabor City, sued N.C. Director of Prisons Kenneth Lassiter and other state officials in U.S. District Court in Raleigh.

His complaint said black inmates in Tabor City submitted a petition in April asking that BET be played on prison televisions but have been denied the privilege. Networks such as TNT, AMC and Fox Discovery are allowed but geared toward white audiences, he said, which amounts to “an advantage or favor ... to some and not others.”

He asks “that black networks be granted and treated no different than they treat the other networks.”

On its website, the state Department of Public Safety says medium-custody inmates like Williamson share one television in each dorm wing, which houses 32 people. Programs are chosen by inmates and approved by staff.

In a response to a grievance Williamson filed in April, DPS staff said BET is forbidden because of “graphical content and violence,” which applies to other banned channels.

“The channel being banned has nothing to do with any of the classifications in which you speak,” wrote Michael B. McPherson 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.”

Prison life is heavily regimented at Williamson’s custody level from 5 a.m. wake up to 11 p.m. lights out. In February, DPS began limiting how inmates could receive money from outside the prison, restricting funds from anyone not already on a visitor’s list. Another DPS staffer, Patricia Alston, dismissed Williamson’s April grievance because complaints only apply to food, clothing and medical care rather than a privilege such as television.

But in his lawsuit, Williamson argues that plenty of programs now allowed — “American Horror Story” or “Breaking Bad” — are just as graphic as anything aired on BET.

“There’s no videos or any gang programs on BET,” he wrote.

Lexington County Detention Center was built in 1975. An annex was built in 1991 and an addition was added in 1999. The center processed in and out, about 9,800 inmates in 2018.

Josh Shaffer covers Wake County and federal courts. He has been a reporter for The News & Observer since 2004 and previously wrote a column about unusual people and places.
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