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Another one bites the dust ...

FOI Alert Volume 2 Issue 8

Pennsylvania is the newest state to restrict media access to prison inmates. The department policy was adopted Nov. 11 with no input from media groups or the public.

"It was a fairly ambiguous policy. That ambiguity led to inconsistent application," said Roger Baumgarten, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. "Also, we couldn't justify giving the media more access than the inmates' families."

Pennsylvania now joins a growing list of states with restricted access and press groups have been slow to respond.

The new policy: "There shall be no special arrangements made for news media interviews with specific inmates." The policy seems to run contrary to the last state policy update from 1993 which states "representatives of the news media with the proper credentials shall be encouraged to visit facilities ..."

Baumgarten claims that is still the case. "We still bring the media in with cameras if they want tours of the facility," he said.

Tours, yes. Individual interviews, no.

"Near-blanket restrictions on media access to prisoners such as those implemented in Pennsylvania go far beyond what is necessary to maintain prison security or protect other penological interests," said Bob Lystad, First Amendment counsel to national SPJ.

"The clear intent of such policies is to establish significant roadblocks for effective access to such prisoners and to hide information of vital interest and importance from the public," Lystad said.

Baumgarten, in his initial explanation of the ban, did not cite security reasons for a change in the policy--the only legitimate reason for restrictions.

But then he added, "We know it's been an issue in California."

SPJ has been filing objections to state bans since California became the lead state to do so more than a year ago.

California's policy, however, is now in legal limbo.

The California Office of Administrative Law has disapproved the state prison system's proposed new rules banning face-to-face media interviews. Peter Sussman, president of SPJ's Northern California Chapter, said the ban was rejected for the moment because the state agency failed to prove the need for such a restrictive measure.

"It is a temporary victory but we're taking encouragement," said Sussman, whose chapter helped lead the fight. "The department was most cavalier in its responses. You just can't make up any rule you want."

The department re-adopted an emergency rule banning one-on-one interviews on Oct. 26. But the emergency rule can't remain in effect indefinitely. The department must either respond adequately to the comments filed or propose a new rule.

James W. Ewert, staff attorney for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said journalists are still limited regardless of what prison officials continue to pretend -- or say publicly. (see the Dec. Quill letter from California DOC spokesman Tip Kindel)

Do journalists still have access? Ewert says, "Yes and no."

A journalist can mingle during general and public visiting hours. Or a journalist can apply to be placed on a personal visitation list but is prohibited under that scenario from bringing in pens, pencils, notebooks or recording devices for an interview.

That's restricted access.

Reporters seem to be posing less of a risk that prison employees. Guards at Corcoran State Prison are alleged to have staged deadly fights among inmates in the facility's high security exercise guard. The San Francisco Chronicle has reported that Corcoran guards were setting up fights among prisoners and then shooting the combatants -- seven of them fatally -- when they failed to stop.

Top prison officials reportedly blocked an FBI inquiry into the abuses as well, at the same time they were citing the violence to support requests for billions of dollars in new prisons.

"The department is under extreme fire now," said Ewert. U.S. Attorney Janet Reno is being asked by elected officials to accelerate the federal investigation into the Corcoran allegations.

As for the rule restricting media access, it's clear that prison officials have an agenda to keep journalists outside and as far away from inside sources of information as possible.

Many of the department's comments reviewed by the administrative office are "arrogant and pompous," Ewert notes.

As the Office of Administrative Law noted, the state agency failed to respond to SPJ's concern that regulatory action fails to comply with the Supreme Court's requirement that limits on speech must be done in "the most narrow manner possible."

Media groups should care now more than ever.

According to a November report from the United States General Accounting Office, the federal and state prison population grew at an average annual rate of 8.5 percent from 1980 to 1995.

That's 330,000 inmates in 1980 to 1.1 million inmates in 1995, an overall increase of 242 percent.

U.S. prison annual operating costs swelled from $3.1 billion in fiscal year 1980 to about $17.7 billion in fiscal year 1994.

Those numbers are plenty enough motivation for this country's news organizations to be reporting about the activities of prison management.

But it still isn't happening.

When several major news networks were denied access to a 15-year-old juvenile incarcerated in an adult prison in Indiana, most of them didn't bother to challenge agency actions.

"I've moved on to five other things," said one producer. "It's just not fair. We got shut out with one fax."

Another associate producer with a different network said the restrictive state policies are ``something we're aware of."

Either one of them doing a story?

Not yet.

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