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Media access to inmates shut down

FOI Alert Volume 2 Issue 3

Note: the next series of alerts will focus on issues discussed at SPJ's National Convention in Crystal City, Va.

The list of states continuing to shut down media access to inmates continues to grow.

Jane Kirtley, executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said restrictions have been "percolating" for years particularly after interviews with serial murderer Jeff Dahmer.

Prison officials were concerned that broadcasting Dahmer's first-person tale would be unseemly, and restrictions have only exploded since then.

Kirtley said victims rights groups are also beginning to exert pressure and close access. "We need to be paying more attention," she said of the trend to cut off prisons.

In South Carolina this May, Kirtley said officials began prohibiting interviews with Death Row inmates just prior to execution -- "a time when there's greatest public interest and concern."

Federal prisons are now allowing the U.S. Attorney General to implement interview bans for 120 days at a time.

"It is not pure coincidence that (officials) are coming up with boilerplate (language) that reads the same from state to state," she said.

Robert Lystad, counsel to the Society of Professional Journalists, said there is no constitutional right for media access beyond the rights of the general public.

Denials are often based on overbroad language that is difficult to challenge, or concerns that are "reasonably related to a penological interest."

"Basically, a prison official may ban face-to-face interviews if there are other reasonable and effective means of communication," Lystad said. "The alternatives can be as slim as correspondence and telephone calls."

"Officials cannot prohibit all mail, all telephone calls, and all contact with the media. They can't prohibit someone from speaking just because they don't like their views."

(The Society has filed formal objections to such policies in several states including Indiana, Illinois, California, Rhode Island and with the federal Bureau of Prisons).

One of the best ways to challenge bans is to prove that prison officials are placing restrictions on inmates' rights for reasons other than security.

Other states are failing to put their policies in writing but exercising broad discretion to deny media access.

Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Frank Green said when a "get tough" policy was implemented by a new governor, the prison commissioner took on sole authority for granting or denying media requests.

Though the Virginia State Press Association attempted to change this policy by statute, Green said the attempt was unsuccessful.

Green said reporters are still able to get stories through collect phone calls and tips from relatives and friends. But he said it's getting tougher to report in-depth pieces on prisons.

Peter Sussman, an SPJ chapter president and author, said California prison officials continue to cite concerns over "glamorizing" prisoners. He said officials there berate the press for giving prisoners a forum "for their often sociopathic views."

Both Sussman and Green stressed that millions of taxpayer dollars are being spent to manage prisons and urged journalists to continue being watchdogs.

(For more information on this topic, see the October 1996 issue of Quill magazine dedicated to access issues and the 30th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act.)

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