Sam Gave Prisoners’ Hope, Help, & Purpose: Memories Of An Indomitable Zany Friend


(5-7-21) From My Files Friday: Summer days cause me to remember Sam Ormes, one of the most creative, goofy, and caring individuals I’ve ever met inside a jail. It was a hot day in 2004 and I was doing research inside the Miami Dade Detention Center for my book, CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, when I heard about a cantankerous employee who had created a television station inside the old jail that was giving inmates hope and purpose. Sadly, jail officials eventually shut down Sam and his station but not before his creation made national news and helped dozens of inmates, including those with mental illnesses. Sam died nearly five years ago without much fanfare, but he was a light in a dark place.  

 A  Story of Zany Antics, Creativity, and Redemption Inside A Dismal Jail

I found him in a tiny cubicle crammed with electronic gizmos inside the Miami Dade jail.  Sam Ormes looked like a hoarder. Nearly every inch of the space was filled with television equipment, cameras, video tapes and stage props, including a rubber chicken hanging on a rope from the ceiling near his desk chair.

Sporting a bow tie, a 1960s style beatnik goatee and reading glasses perched on the tip of his nose, Sam explained that he was the originator and driving force behind Inmate Corrections Television, better known as ICTV.

An inmate televisions station in a jail? How did that happen? I asked. He told me to sit down and listen.

Sam had been a big-shot salesman 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 at the county’s waste disposal department as an “efficiency expert.” I’m still not sure what an efficiency expert at a dump does, but whatever it is, Sam was destined for higher tasks.

As a single dad raising two sons, he began working overtime at the jail to earn a extra bucks and one weekend, Sam noticed that none of the televisions in the jail got decent reception. Actually, there was no reception. This was back when televisions still used antennas.

Sam sent a note to his bosses suggesting that cable TV be added at the jail so that prisoners could watch programs rather than fighting and stabbing each other. The idea got approved and Sam was put in charge of getting the entire jail wired for cable.

Sam’s genius comes into play

He told the cable company to keep one channel free for jail programming. His bosses planned to post that day’s menus on it. But Sam had bigger ideas. He put together a studio inside the jail with discarded equipment and began recruiting inmates to appear on camera as newscasters.

Sam’s first shows were pretty boring. An inmate read the daily newspaper. But soon, he had the “station” popping. An prisoner taught exercises that could be done in cells. Another 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 played dueling saxophones.

Sam’s zaniness kept the ICTV lively

He invited 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 Dolphins 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 broadcast serious programs written, directed and acted in by inmates, including shows about smoking, cancer, and HIV AIDS. He brought in lawyers from the public defenders office to do a call-in show each week. He teamed with health officials to teach basic hygiene.

ICTV even helped prevent a riot. At the time there were more than 2,200 inmates living in a jail built for half that number. When a Cuban and a black inmate got into a fistfight, a rumor swept through the jail that one of them had been stabbed to death. Both camps armed themselves and were ready to start fighting when Sam got his ICTV inmate anchors to go on the air and assure everyone that no one had been killed.

Sam’s popularity grew when U.S. Marshals showed up to transport one of his prisoner anchors to a different jail. Sam complained: “You can’t take him a half an hour before air time.” 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.

Not everyone in the jail was happy with Sam.

The inmate anchors became celebrities and that made correctional officers jealous. But ICTV also gave inmates a feeling of accomplishment and taught them new skills. 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. 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 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 while the families of their victims continued to suffer because of their crimes.

Prison officials used the broadcast to begin closing down ICTV. Sam stubbornly 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, listing that day’s menu.

He died ten years later.

Sam gave people hope. It’s too bad jail officials failed to see just how valuable hope can be in a jail.

You can learn more by visiting these links.

ICTV Inmate/Corrections Television

New York Times Story about ICTV

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.