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Sheriff wants inmates to pedal for TV rights

Joe Arpaio, who calls himself "America's toughest sheriff," is providing Arizona inmates with a new amenity: cable television. But they're going to have to pedal to get the TV to work.

If you're looking for a weight loss boot camp, the Tent City Jail in Phoenix may be your solution. Controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who dubs himself "America's toughest sheriff," is providing the inmates there with a new amenity: cable television. But to watch their favorite shows, they're going to have to pedal.

Inmates at the Tent City Jail pedal for TV time. CBSNews.com

Arpaio installed an energy-generating stationary bike (PDF) attached to a TV when he found that 50 percent of the inmates were overweight, many morbidly so. As long as an inmate is pedaling, the bike will produce 12 volts of energy--just enough to power a 19-inch tube TV. But if an inmate stops pedaling at a moderate speed, the TV shuts off.

Because inmates can't be forced to exercise, access to cable TV could provide incentive for them to do so. Female prisoners will test the program first, because they were more receptive to it, Arpaio says.

This isn't Arpaio's first attempt to trim inmates' waistlines. Some years back, he cut inmates' food intake from 3,000 calories to 2,500 calories. "You're too fat," CNN reported Arpaio as saying to the inmates. "I'm taking away your food because I'm trying to help you. I'm on a diet myself. You eat too much fat."

"America's toughest sheriff" hasn't always had an easy time implementing his standards, which have included assembling a female chain gang and making inmates pay $10 every time they need to see a nurse. Human-rights groups consider Tent City jail to be among the harshest in the nation, according to CNN, and numerous civil-rights lawsuits have been filed against the sheriff.

The program that Arpaio is calling "Pedal Vision" might be received with less criticism, though. Watching TV while serving time is a privilege, not a right, so inmates are choosing to take advantage of it. But what if every prisoner pedaled to produce energy?

TreeHugger did the calculation:

Well, the total U.S. prisoner population in 2008 was 2,424,279 people, and an individual can produce 150 watts when peddling moderately on a stationary bike which would make for a total of 363,641.85 kilowatts per hour (kWh) produced if everyone peddled. With the average price of electricity being 12¢/kWh in the U.S., if every prisoner exercised for 2.5 hours a day, that would amount to $109,092 in energy cost savings each day, or nearly $40 million a year!

Using prisoners to produce some of America's energy probably won't happen, but if Pedal Vision proves successful, prisoners may one day pedal to energize certain parts of jail facilities.

Green Microgym in Portland, Ore., took this approach by using its members exercise to power the gym's LCD TVs, laptops, and the gym's stereo. As long as the exercisers are pedaling, the electronics keep running.

Jails and gyms aren't the only places that can combine weight loss, sustainability, and economic savings. What if company offices or apartment complexes adopt this technology? Though most of Arpaio's implementations have received criticism in the past, he may be on to something with this one.