My good friend, Sam Ormes, turned 80 this week! He is an amazing guy. Happy Birthday Sam!
One of the benefits of being a journalist is that you get to meet fascinating people and Sam Ormes is one of the most colorful and delightful that I’ve met.
While doing research inside the Miami Dade County jail for my book about mental illness, I happened on a tiny cubicle that was crammed with electronic gizmos. I thought that Sam might have been a hoarder because nearly every inch of the space was taken-up by television equipment, cameras, video tapes and stage props, including a rubber chicken hanging on a rope from the ceiling.
Sporting a bow tie, a 1960s style beatnik goatee and reading glasses perched on the tip of his nose, Sam told me that he was the originator and driving force behind Inmate Corrections Television, better known as ICTV, one of the best ideas that ever came out of a jail.
Sam had been a big shot executive selling pharmaceuticals and later beauty supplies in Central America between 1966 to 1978. But after almost getting shot during an uprising in El Salvador, he moved to Miami where he found work as an efficiency expert at the county’s waste disposal department. As a single dad raising two sons, he often worked overtime at the jail to earn a few extra bucks and one weekend, as he was walking through a cellblock, Sam spotted a familiar face. It was a local Miami TV newscaster who’d been arrested on assault charges. The prisoner was trying to tune in programs on an old TV that was in a group cell that held another two dozen inmates. No matter what the inmate attempted, the screen showed only static.
Sam noticed that none of the TVs in the jail got decent reception so he sent a note to his boss suggesting that cable TV be added so that prisoners could watch programs rather than beating and stabbing each other. His boss liked the idea so much that he hired Sam full-time and put him in charge of getting the entire jail wired.
Sam, very wisely, told the cable company that he wanted at least one channel reserved for internal use only. He told his bosses that having an internal TV channel would be a great way for them to post notices about jail procedures and even the jail’s daily menu.
But once he got their approval, Sam began turning the internal channel into something much more brilliant than a boring bulletin board.
Without using any tax payers’ money, Sam found a way to set up a studio inside the jail and he began recruiting inmates to appear on camera as newscasters. Sam’s news show started simply enough with an inmate reading from that day’s newspaper but under Sam’s guidance, it soon became the jail’s most comical and popular program with three or four inmates reading and commenting on stories.
Some of his best anchors were inmates from the ninth floor mental health cells who would rant and rave about some obscure news item. Before long, Sam was introducing other inmate programs. There was an inmate teaching exercises that could be done in cells. Another inmate offered tips on different ways a prisoner could turn his drab jail issued jumpsuit into something more stylish. A minister taught Bible classes and Sam and an inmate created the ICTV “Orchestra” with each of them playing dueling saxophones.
Sam got lawyers from the public defenders office to do a call-in show each week with inmates passing questions to him on an internal phone line to relay to the attorneys. He teamed with health officials to teach basic hygiene. During one broadcast, an inmate took a drink from a cup and then passed it to Sam who took a drink and passed it back. A county health worker entered the picture and announced, “These two men have just exchanged the flu.” In the background, Sam, in Laurel-and Hardy fashion, feigned anger, slapping the cup from the inmate. To outsiders, such antics might seem like a small thing, but when you have 30 guys living in a group cell, exchanging cups, it was a major problem.
It didn’t take long for ICTV to prove how valuable it could be. At the time there were more than 2,200 inmates living in a jail built for half that number and a fistfight could escalate into a race war within minutes. A fight broke out one day between a Cuban and a black inmate and a rumor swept through the jail that one of them had been stabbed to death. With tensions mounting, Sam got his ICTV inmate anchors to go on the air and assure everyone that no one had been killed. Their quick action helped prevent a violent outbreak.
Sam’s zaniness kept the ICTV channel popping. He arranged for a woman, who did meditation, to host a program about ways to de-stress and quickly dubbed her the Mystical Mama. When inmates complained about the quality of food, Sam arranged for a “Just Say No To Waffles Campaign.” An inmate anchor appeared on the air looking every bit like an election night reporter. “With 76 percent of the cells reporting, the vote is Danishes 975 to Waffles 14.”
Sam got Miami Dolpins players to appear regularly on a sports program for inmates and the corrections chief agreed to take on all comers in a televised checkers’ tournament.
Sam also broadcast serious programs written, directed and acted in by inmates, such as one about smoking and another about the HIV AIDs virus.
Within the jail, Sam became famous when U.S. Marshals showed up to transport a prisoner who was one of his news anchors to a different jail. Sam tried to stop them, complaining “you can’t take him a half an hour before air time.” The other inmates on the show began laughing and reminded Sam that the waiting feds probably didn’t care that their prisoner had a newscast to do. Sam asked the marshals if they wanted to come watch the broadcast and when they declined, he had another inmate film his anchor being led away in handcuffs.
Boxing night was especially popular with Sam, who used to box, giving his commentary and occasionally flashing the image of a scantily dressed hottie on the screen between rounds.
Not everyone in the jail was happy with Sam. The inmate anchors were looked on as celebrities by other inmates and that made some correctional officers angry. But ICTV gave many inmates a feeling of accomplishment and taught them new skills. It also helped reduce tensions inside the jail and gave prisoners a feeling of camaraderie.
If you ever saw Robin Williams in the movie Good Morning Vietnam, then you will have a pretty good image of what Sam was like running ICTV. And that comparison was made by journalists when word of ICTV began leaking out. Within a year after its inception, ICTV was featured on the NBC Nightly News, A Current Affair and CNN.
“To be on CNN around the world, that was a big break for a bunch of guys in a little room who were not too sure of themselves,” Ormes told Jim Defede for a story published in 1992 in the Miami New Times newspaper. Letters poured in from other correctional departments in Texas, Washington state, and as far away as Hawaii.
Everything was going great for Sam and ICTV and then Sam got bamboozled. A producer from America’s Most Wanted told him that the show wanted to do a segment about ICTV that would be in the same spirit as the favorable stories that already had appeared. Proud of his inmate’s accomplishments, Sam welcomed a film crew into the jail only to become horrified later when America’s Most Wanted broadcast a story that accused the jail of pampering convicted killers and rapists by allowing them to run amok and party in the jail in the ICTV studios while the families of their victims continued to suffer because of their crimes.
Prison officials who didn’t like ICTV used the broadcast to begin undermining Sam. Guards became complaining about Sam’s requests when he asked them to bring his inmate anchors into the studio. Without them, ICTV lost its appeal
Sam stubbornly refused to give up. He lobbied jail officials to restore ICTV but his pleas were in vain and in 2007, he was forced out and ICTV became an electronic bulletin board.
I greatly admire Sam and have been trying for several years to get Hollywood to tell his story. With help from my friend, actor Mike Farrell, we began pitching the ICTV tale to television networks, but our proposal got passed over when Showtime announced that it was buying the rights to a story about a teacher in San Quentin Penitentiary who taught her students how to use TV cameras.
I’ve always believed that inspiring stories find a way to be told and, if that is true, then someday you will see Sam and ICTV being portrayed in a movie or on TV. I hope so because he improved people’s lives and showed jail officials how they could use an internal TV station as a redemptive tool.
It’s too bad they didn’t listen and learn.
HERE ARE FOUR LINKS THAT WILL ENABLE YOU TO LEARN MORE ABOUT ICTV WHEN IT WAS AT ITS BEST AND ALSO ABOUT SAM.
You can watch Sam playing a guitar in jail on ICTV here.
This blog was published previously in June 2010.