Reporters wait for Florida prison rules, Michigan clamps down, Virginia lifts ban and California governor vetoes bill
Compiled by Joel Campbell, SPJ FOI Alert editor, (801) 237-2190
Journalists in Florida are holding their breath while prison officials there consider media access rules. At the same time, journalists in Michigan face a new ban on tape recorders and cameras in prisons while Virginia is lifting its four-year ban on recording devices. California’s governor also recently vetoed a bill that would have restored a reporter’s right to interview specific prisoners.
By Wm. F. Hirschman
President, South Florida SPJ Chapter
Florida journalists are still waiting to find the outcome of rules announced by the Florida Department of Corrections last September.
The department announced on its Web site its intention to limit reporters' access to prisoners by changing its administrative rules. The media were never contacted even though the staff had worked on the idea since at least April. Although a detailed proposal was never spelled out, Corrections Secretary Michael Moore raised several rhetorical questions and comments in a letter that he posted on his Web site.
"(Currently) those who claimed they were journalists or were working for a news organization could visit and record an interview with any inmate, and discuss any subject, as long as the inmate consented. The practice of this policy was expansive compared to many other states. ... With criminals committing notorious crimes, with the media eager to publicize them, and with more attention being given to the plight and rights of victims, we are obliged to review our policies."
"Some key issues to be examined as we proceed are:
-- What is the difference between the media's ability to visit and interview an inmate?
-- Do interviews transform prisoners into celebrities? Do they diminish remorse for their crimes and hinder rehabilitation?
-- Should victims and law enforcement agencies, such as police and prosecutors, be consulted before inmate interviews take place?
-- Are interviews burdensome to prison staff who must supervise them? Is it reasonable to ask the media to reimburse the department for labor costs associated with arranging interviews?
-- Should different interview rules apply to Death Row and non-Death Row inmates?
-- Should standards be set to evaluate the legitimacy of journalists seeking interviews?"
The South Florida SPJ chapter started a letter writing campaign and urged colleagues to write editorials. The chapter also received a resolution from the National SPJ Convention in October and received advice from Peter Sussman and Charles Davis, longtime SPJ advocates for open prison access policies.
The department's mid-level staff - not Moore - held an informal hearing Nov. 1 in Tallahassee. Only one victims' rights proponent attended. Key speakers included Wm. F. Hirschman, president of the South Florida SPJ chapter; Alison Steele, attorney for the St. Petersburg Times; Richard Shelton of the Florida Press Association; Mark Seibel, an editor with The Miami Herald; and David Bralow, attorney for several groups including the Orlando Sentinel and Media General.
By the end of the hearing, the staff claimed to have taken 85 percent of their talking points off the table. But what they left was odious. They still wanted to decide who is "a legitimate journalist" and they wanted to block access based on whether they object to the content of an interview. Specifically, they want to protect the feelings of victims, and they want to keep "objectionable views" from reaching the public.
After that, staffers said they would be tied up on other projects for several weeks, but they had not abandoned their goal and planned to hold more formal hearings in the future. In fact, Moore told a northwest Florida daily in late December that he still plans to change the policies.
Observers predict that nothing will happen until after the legislature adjourns in the late spring. But Gov. Jeb Bush is solidly behind this, and he reputedly would like to see a Draconian policy similar to the blanket blackout in South Carolina.
See Florida Department of Corrections discussion of rules at:
See the South Florida Chapter’s White Paper on prison access at:
http://www.netrox.net/~dali/spj/ then select "Prisons.htm" from menu.
A Michigan lawmaker has introduced a bill in the state's Senate to ensure that reporters have access to prison inmates.
The move comes after Michigan Department of Corrections officials implemented a new policy that bans reporters from prisons except as regularly scheduled visitors. In visitation areas, cameras and tape recorders are banned. Although the rules are still considered in the revision process, the department has begun using them.
Sponsored by state Sen. Philip Hoffman, the bill would require the Department of Corrections to establish reasonable policies governing media access to state prisons. It would also allow telephone interviews and uncensored correspondence between reporters and prisoners who are not in solitary confinement. "Limiting media access only serves to create rumor and suspicion," Hoffman said.
According to former journalist and Department of Corrections spokesman Matt Davis, the department believes that journalists should have no greater right of access than the general public. Because of that position, the department has restricted journalist interviews to the same visitation procedures granted the public or by telephone. Michigan prisons donot permit reporters any other access to inmates except through the visitation process. Access to other areas of the prison would be a security risk and would place the Department of Corrections in the position of deciding who is a "journalist." Interviews with prisoners in half-way houses have been banned altogether, Davis said.
The new rules have also been created to protect the privacy rights of other visitors who might be present in the visitation room during an interview, Davis said. Davis has maintained the revised rules are far less restrictive than a previous policy. But Dawn Phillips Hertz, attorney for the Michigan Press Association, disagrees.
"It was easier to get interviews (with inmates), and it was easier to get face-to-face interviews. Prisoners were very cooperative," she said. "It's unfortunate that the Department of Corrections has taken this approach. One wonders what they have to hide."
News media representatives contend the media play a vital role in showing taxpayers - who fund the prisons - the conditions inside. During a hearing in November on the proposed rule changes, several gave examples of conditions brought to light in newspaper and television reports that resulted in changes in the system. Corrections officials say the changes are meant to increase security. They say that bringing reporters, photographers and film crews into prisons threatens security and can create notoriety for the inmates featured.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
View the Michigan rules online at www.state.mi.us/orr/ from that page click on the following buttons: "rules under review," "search by department," "Corrections," and "revision text."
After a four-year ban, the Virginia Department of Corrections announced in November that it would once again allow news cameras and recording devices inside most of its institutions.
Exempt from the new policy, which went into effect this week, are the state's two new "supermax" prisons, Red Onion and Wallens Ridge, the Sussex I and II state prisons, and a handful of others.
Cameras will be allowed inside work camps, diversion centers and other relatively low-security facilities, said Larry Traylor, a spokesman for the department.
Traylor said the new policy was made possible because the prisons are safer places now that the most dangerous inmates have been sent to the most secure prisons.
Ronald J. Angelone, the director of the Department of Corrections, imposed a virtual ban on reporters going inside prisons in 1995. Angelone cited security concerns.
In recent years, however, reporters have been allowed back inside the prisons but without cameras or tape recorders.
Journalists in California still encounter obstacles since the state first banned reporters from prison. Gov. Gray Davis recently vetoed a bill that would have restored reporters’ rights to arrange one-on-one interviews with inmates.
According to the Los Angeles Times, reporters may interview inmates they randomly encounter while touring a prison. They cannot set up an interview beforehand. And permission for tours is arbitrary. Recently, a San Diego Union-Tribune reporter was denied access to Corcoran State Prison - for no stated reason -- while on the same day it was granted to aCanadian newspaper reporter.
A journalist can get on an inmate’s visitors’ list. But it takes several days. Even then, tape records, notebooks and pens are banned. Last spring, officials said reporters must be furnished with writing material. But in August, Mathew Stannard of the Oakland Tribune was denied this at Valley State Prison. He found a pencil and some napkins to write on, but they were confiscated.
Ironically, ABC’s Ted Koppel’s six-night report on California prisons in November revealed how women inmates asserted that one prison doctor performed a Pap smear for everything from a everything from a cut finger to a chest cold. The doctor was yanked immediately from the prison and given a desk job.
Unfortunately, the Times found that kind of reporting is an anomaly in the California system because of the prison access rules.
About the author: Joel Campbell is a Web edition editor at the (Salt Lake City) Deseret News.