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Home > Publications > Quill > FOI: Journalists should demand prison access


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Monday, May 7, 2007
FOI: Journalists should demand prison access

Commentary by Joel Campbell

Will state corrections officials’ attempts to block media access to inmates never end?

The latest is Maine Department of Corrections’ officials who proposed draconian media restrictions they said had long been on paper but never implemented. After an outcry from journalists, Maine’s governor said he wanted to review the policies, which included requiring reporters to sign an agreement allowing corrections officials to monitor and control interview content.

In the past, prison-reporter conversations had not been monitored, nor had officials attempted to control questions or threatened to confiscate reporters’ property.

Jeff Inglis, managing editor of The Phoenix in Portland, Maine, and vice president of the Maine SPJ chapter, reported that the department released a draft of a revised policy, adding even more restrictions. Video and still cameras would be completely banned.

“Several restrictions sought to give prison officials the right to control the content, substance and nature of both questions by reporters as well as answers from inmates,” Inglis wrote.

Inglis said the draft was so unconstitutional that it should be scrapped. He asked policy drafters to start over.

In Alaska, the department of corrections put out a new policy on inmate interviews that requires journalists to get permission from high-level department officials, not just the prison superintendent. The policy also bars journalists from using any type of recorder, and requires the inmate to sign a release acknowledging that what they say may be printed or broadcast and could be used against them in court.

In California, the debate about prison access drags on. Journalists have been complaining since the department of corrections clamped down on access in 1998. Late last year, the secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said he supports more reporter access to the state’s prisons, but isn’t ready to let reporters have face-to-face interviews with inmates who have committed violent crimes.

Both California and Maine officials use terms such as “revictimization” and “creating celebrities” when talking about their policies.

A major sticking point in proposed California policy revisions is language that would make felons convicted of violent crimes or sex offenses off limits to pre-arranged face-to-face interviews. Only those convicted of lesser crimes would be allowed to participate in face-to-face interviews, effectively allowing access to only 50 percent of the state’s 177,000 inmates.

In absence of policy revisions, Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, is pushing a bill in the California Assembly that serves as a model for all states for journalistic access. It’s the third year in a row Romero has sponsored the bill. Similar versions had been vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his predecessors.

As an organization, SPJ has long fought for reporter access to government activities and records. In particular, the society has had an ongoing Prison Access Project that helps journalists gain access to correctional facilities and related issues. A Web site, www.spj.org/prisonaccess.asp, attempts to track and publish corrections policies for all 50 states.

Taxpayers benefit as the media gains access to tell the stories about expenditures, processes, treatment of inmates and other concerns.

It’s interesting that SPJ and other press groups are not alone in their call for increased transparency and scrutiny of correctional facilities.

In June 2006, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons recommended that prisons should increase oversight and accountability.

“Finally, every prison and jail should allow the press to do its job; invite lawmakers, judges, and citizens to visit facilities; and work in other ways to inform the public about life behind bars,” the commission said.

SPJ’s FOI Committee urges local chapters and sunshine chairmen to evaluate each state’s prison media access policies against our model standards. If they don’t measure up, it might be time to start talking to legislators. New policies adopted in some states are apt to spread throughout the nation.


Joel Campbell is chairman of SPJ's Freedom of Information Committee. You can reach him at joelcompbell@byu.edu

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