INDIANAPOLIS — The Society of Professional Journalists issued a letter today urging Massachusetts Department of Correction Commissioner Michael T. Maloney to drop a series of proposed restrictions that would greatly limit the ability of journalists to interview inmates at state prisons.
The changes proposed by the DOC would prohibit interviews with inmates in segregation units, deny the use of cameras or tape recorders at medium- and maximum-security prisons, and require that a guard or prison official be present for all inmate interviews. Also, telephone interviews could be severely limited, and interviews with inmates in solitary confinement would be eliminated outright.
In addition, the policy calls for the Department of Correction to approve requests based on a set of factors, including whether " ... access would result in a significant benefit to law enforcement agencies." Such content-based qualifications on access are completely unwarranted, and quite possibly unconstitutional, and clearly signal an unwillingness to embrace the public scrutiny that is part of the process.
The Society wrote, "The department's proposed rules stifle media coverage of prisons and prisoners at a time when the public more than ever needs the information journalists often garner from interviews with prisoners." SPJ encouraged Commissioner Maloney to "remain mindful of the importance of public scrutiny of the corrections department and the thousands of inmates in its charge," and to " ... put the needs of the public first, and to grant access to [corrections] facilities for any bona fide news event."
"Prison policies such as these are designed to shut out the public and press," said Charles N. Davis, SPJ Freedom of Information co-chairman. "The correctional industry is the only functional unit of state governance free from the scrutiny of an active press, and it is at our peril that we allow prisons to run in the dark."
Copies of the letter were sent to the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Correction, the editorial boards of The Boston Globe, Boston Herald, and the Boston Phoenix, the Massachusetts Newspaper Association and the governor of the state of Massachusetts.
The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. SPJ is dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, and based in Indianapolis, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.
For SPJ information, contact Julie Grimes, SPJ deputy director, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 317/927-8000 ext. 216.
SPJ's Letter to Commissioner Maloney
June 18, 2002
Michael T. Maloney Massachusetts Department of Correction Massachusetts DOC Central Headquarters 50 Maple Street, Suite 3 Milford, MA 01757
Dear Commissioner Maloney:
On behalf of the Society of Professional Journalists, the nation's largest and broadest group of journalists with many members in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, we urge you to reconsider your department's recently proposed media access policy revisions. The proposed restrictions will eviscerate reportage of the prison system in Massachusetts, and displays what we feel is a serious misunderstanding of the role of the press in a democratic society.
The Society understands and respects the need to balance security and privacy concerns with the First Amendment right of the news media to gather information of public interest and importance. In our view, these interests are not inconsistent. In balancing these interests, the Society implores you to remain mindful of the importance of public scrutiny of the corrections department and the thousands of inmates in its charge.
There are several provisions in the proposed policy that greatly concern the Society. We ask that you reconsider and modify these conditions.
First, conditioning access to prisons on the "significant benefit" it will accrue to the department places the benefit of journalism on the wrong party, in our opinion. Reporters cover the news for the benefit of citizens, and whether the department is made to look good in the process should not be a deciding point in allowing access to the facility. Such content-based qualifications on access are completely unwarranted, and quite possibly unconstitutional, and clearly signal an unwillingness to embrace the public scrutiny that is part of the process. The Commonwealth does not exist to render benefit to its agencies and bureaucrats, but to its citizens, and one of those benefits is being informed about the working of their government. We urge you to put the needs of the public first, and to grant access to your facilities for any bona fide news event.
The determination of which stories are of benefit to the department raises constitutional concerns because it is not content neutral. As the United States Supreme Court said:
So long as this restriction operates in a neutral fashion, without regarding to the content of the expression, it falls within the "appropriate rules and regulations" to which "prisoners are necessarily subject," and does not abridge any First Amendment freedoms retained by prison inmates. -- Pell v. Procunier, 417 U.S. 817, 828 (1974) (emphasis added).
Your policy dictates access decisions based on determinations of whether the department agrees with the story. This is unacceptable under First Amendment principles.
Second, the proposed policies governing inmate interviews are clearly designed to silence and intimidate inmates, and to frustrate media coverage. A blanket rule that "no interviews of inmates in segregation units shall be permitted" ignores the very real possibility that such inmates might be the center of legitimate news events that demand coverage.
Similarly, the ban on electronic recording devices is overbroad and designed to frustrate the efforts of broadcasters to cover prisons in Massachusetts. Cameras are the pen and paper of broadcast reporters, and the department's concerns for safety and privacy cannot justify a blanket prohibition. Further, it significantly hampers the news media's right to publish newsworthy information and the public's right to receive such information.
The media's use of an inmate's image and/or voice, as he is speaking, does not create any greater security risk to the facility than the mere recitation or paraphrase of his words. This restriction fails in particular to maximize the communicative impact brought by the radio and television media. Without access to the recording of an inmate's voice, the public is denied the best opportunity to assess for itself the demeanor, the inflection, the feelings, and the ultimate acknowledgement -- or lack thereof -- of the inmate of the consequences of his actions and the criminal justice system. In addition, recorded interviews help broadcasters and non-broadcast journalists ensure the accuracy of their reporting. Surely the DOC is in favor of anything that furthers accurate reporting. The criminal justice system will lose an opportunity to reinforce its message of deterrence should the public be deprived of a chance to hear an inmate express his thoughts in his own voice. Instead, your restriction would force journalists to characterize what they believe they saw and heard, rather than let the public make its own decision.
The department's proposed rules stifle media coverage of prisons and prisoners at a time when the public more than ever needs the information journalists often garner from interviews with prisoners. The prisons are straining to cope with an unprecedented population buildup, and several federal courts have found unconstitutionally cruel practices within correctional systems. The financial cost alone of such abuses is incalculable. It is the traditional role of the news media to investigate such practices and call them to the attention of the public. We are sure you are concerned with this situation, too.
At such a juncture, it is all the more important that the operation of prisons and the psychology of crime and punishment receive the greatest possible scrutiny in the news media. An informed electorate is a boon, not a threat. We believe in-depth media coverage ultimately assists the public, and these rules will make it difficult, if not impossible, to give the people of Massachusetts any non-governmental take on prison conditions.
Your office was quoted in a Boston Globe story claiming that media interviews make "celebrities" of inmates. Nothing could be further from the truth. Like it or not, many of your inmates committed newsworthy crimes. The vast majority of the stories we wish to write involve not celebrities, but anonymous inmates alleging mistreatment, corruption and abuse.
SPJ will be watching with interest the progress of the proposed rules on media access, and we welcome any opportunity to discuss them before they are made final. In closing, we urge you to consider not just the narrow political interests of the correctional industry, but also the long-term need for public trust and transparency.
Charles N. Davis, Co-Chair, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Associate Professor, News-Editorial Executive Director, Freedom of Information Center Missouri School of Journalism