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A wall of vintage televisions sets stacked on top of each other.
Photo by scanrail on Depositphotos

Tucked into two storage rooms in the gym of Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, Missouri, a small group of prisoners maintains a closed-circuit TV network that delivers bespoke television programming to ERDCC’s roughly 2,700 residents.

The smaller of these concrete rooms contains two folding tables, three office chairs and three desktop computers with two 24-inch monitors apiece. XStream’s octopus logo adorns the door to the larger room, which contains five identical desks, a 65-inch TV, a bank of 15 smaller TVs and two black metal cabinets aglow with the multicolored LEDs of digital and analog broadcast equipment, as well as a Dell network server. The space is in a state of barely controlled chaos, warm from the electronics, awash in white noise from the fans that keep everything from overheating.

ERDCC is located an hour’s drive south of St. Louis. Televised entertainment for this locus of wayward humanity is supplied by a combination of a basic-cable subscription and the work of XStream, a service comprised of the 11 incarcerated men who program 16 in-house TV channels and create original content that reflects the diverse interests of the prison’s residents. 

Most prisoners watch in their cells on TVs they have purchased from the prison canteen — you know they are prison TVs because the casing is transparent, so all the parts inside are visible. 

For decades, TV has been referred to as “the best babysitter the Department of Corrections could have.” But XStream endeavors to do more than merely distract.

One Saturday per month, XStream Theater offers a moviegoing experience for residents of incentive housing units and those who have not received a conduct violation for six months. 

Freshly made popcorn and a cold can of soda are given to everyone at the door, after which a new release is projected on the gym’s 30-foot inflatable screen. Roughly 240 ERDCC prisoners paid nothing for the privilege of attending our most recent screening, the DC superhero movie “Black Adam.”

At each screening, we show a different original comedic XStream Media skit — prison’s answer to the viral video. These have run the gamut from fake movie trailers to commercials for imaginary products (such as virtual reality headsets specially designed for prisoners). The skits often tie in with or parallel the feature film. For our recent double-feature weekend of “Top Gun” and “Top Gun: Maverick,” we created elaborate trailers for imaginary spoofs we titled “Wings of Freedom” and “Wings of Freedom: Reckoning,” casting members of Team XStream as fighter pilots called for a special mission, then recalled 20 years later. Many attendees have said that the skits are the main reason they come to these events.

Beyond these in-person gatherings, the current XStream Media production lineup includes therapeutic videos (such as daily affirmations, poetry readings and strategies for maintaining good mental health); short how-tos for the tablet computer everyone here is issued; an in-cell cooking show; televised book club meetings; a talk show about music; and another talk show about issues relevant to prisoners’ lives. 

All are conceived, directed and carried through post-production by members of the ERDCC population, any one of whom may apply with their own idea for a program. 

In addition to programming its eight movie channels, three channels of serial programming, fitness channel and relaxation channel (which shows soothing, hours-long loops of kaleidoscopic patterns, sheep grazing, rainfall on a forest trail, and so on), XStream also keeps current a full-featured TV guide channel and an information channel that relays institutional schedules, news, menus and announcements. 

An elite position

Working at XStream is a full-time job, even by free-world standards — seven hours a day, seven days a week. Once or twice a month, the team works a 12-hour day. Our monthly pay, which ranges from $50 to $80 per month or roughly 36 to 57 cents per hour, depending on seniority, is better than what many positions in this facility earn. The average pay for prisoners in Missouri is 5 cents to 71 cents per hour, according to a recent report from the ACLU.

More important, the majority of Team XStream members report feeling great satisfaction with their jobs. It’s common to see XStream co-workers socializing outside of the workplace, at meals or on the prison yard. Several were friends before they began working together, but also the long hours and shared purpose inherent to the work foster a sense of camaraderie.

XStream’s work product must meet with administrative approval, but broad latitude is given to apply creative freedom. Several “recreation officers” run the gym and oversee XStream. 

I was hired at XStream three years ago. Having at that time already served 20 years on a sentence of life without parole, my experience with web development and graphic design was out of date. In this environment where blue collars and thug life are norms, finding workers familiar with computers isn’t easy. 

Being part of Team XStream is therefore something of an elite position, and hiring practices are more strict than for most prison jobs. Trustworthiness is a prerequisite to become a member. Providing at least one character reference helps. A recommendation from a current team member provides the best edge.

From TV to software development

XStream’s octopus logo seems aptly chosen, considering all that we do. Much as octopus limbs function independently, our production arm operates as part of a larger whole.

In addition to content production, XStream also recently forayed into software development. 

Last year, ERDCC administration requested a platform for managing prisoner movement. Using a Linux computer, we developed a system that tracks the occupancy of ERDCC’s gym in real time, as prisoners scan their ID cards when entering and leaving the building. It also monitors for unauthorized entry based on the rotating recreation schedule and restrictions resulting from disciplinary sanctions.

None of XStream’s computers, broadcasting equipment or media were purchased with taxpayer funds, but rather with money accrued through prison canteen markups. The Inmate Canteen Fund, a multimillion-dollar account maintained by the Missouri Department of Corrections, provides for all expenses deemed “nonessential” at the institutional level. Library books, cable subscriptions, board games, exercise machines, material for religious services, and radio frequency modulators for XStream — are all purchased via the Inmate Canteen Fund.

Several members of Team XStream had never used a personal computer before coming to prison. Now they sit at workstations linked to our network, each desktop able to access terabytes of media. With this equipment, and a little prison ingenuity, Team XStream creates videos and software that entertain and enrich those around us — a profound reward in a place that seems to offer so little. 

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Byron Case is a writer incarcerated in Missouri.