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California Bans Media Interviews with Prisoners

California Governor Pete Wilson issued an executive order banning face to face media interviews with prisoners. The ban comes at a time when most civil rights for the state's 142,000 prisoners have been taken and violence is on the rise in the world's largest prison system. At the obligatory public hearing held at the Department of Corrections, representatives of the media and public strongly opposed the proposed new policies. In its public notice for that hearing, the Department claimed the ban was necessary to prevent individual prisoners from becoming celebrities and gaining access to contraband.

Saying that prisons represent "the most expansionist sector" of state spending, Terry Francke, Executive Director of the California First Amendment Coalition, said, "the individual stories and accounts that only inmates can provide" make up a critical component in determining how smoothly the state's prison system is run. For some stories about prison life and administration, Francke continued, "there is no substitute for the opportunity to talk directly and candidly with specific individuals who either know the facts or can point to those who do." When prison guards boiled a mentally ill prisoner alive at Pelican Bay and beat, kicked and shot prisoners for sport at Corcoran, prisoners relayed the stories to the media. Critics of the ban believe it's exactly that type of information Department of Corrections Director James Gomez hopes to suppress with the new policy.

Department officials point to the alleged escape attempt by Black Panther George Jackson at San Quentin prison in 1971 and the regular "Geraldo" side shows featuring Charles Manson as justification for refusing to permit the media to interview specific prisoners any longer. In addition, prisoners will no longer be allowed to send mail to representatives of the media confidentially. Now, such mail will be read by guards before it's allowed out of the prison. Reporters will only be permitted to speak to prisoners selected by officials during approved tours of prisons. Prison officials could offer no examples of how face to face media interviews actually compromised the security of any prison.

"Why should some guy benefit from committing a crime? We did this because we didn't want to have inmates becoming celebrities and heroes," J.P. Tremblay, Assistant Secretary of the Youth and Adult Corrections Agency said in an interview with the San Francisco Daily Recorder last January. He claimed that the principle of preventing criminals from profiting from their crimes necessarily "includes the intangible profit that certain inmates acquire by receiving the attention they crave and the attendant opportunity for a public forum in which they can espouse their often sociopathic philosophies." Tremblay failed to explain why any prisoner bent on promoting "sociopathic philosophies" couldn't simply do so in regular, non-confidential letters mailed to the media.

While prisoners might express their viewpoints to the media in open letters, few will be willing to risk the consequences of exposing beatings, shootings, theft and other misconduct by prison staff. Prison guards who screen all outgoing prisoner mail routinely seize letters addressed to the media critical of prison employees. Photocopies of such letters are placed in the prisoner's file for other staff to read and disciplinary action or other retaliation is taken against the author. The possibility of such retaliation could have a chilling effect on the flow of information about abuses in prison to the media.

Peter Sussman, co-author of "Committing Journalism," and President of the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, recalls once receiving a confidential letter from a prisoner which contained a copy of a lab report showing high levels of human fecal matter contamination in a prison water supply. With many prisons located in the state's agricultural based Central Valley, it has long been suspected that drinking water supplied to prisoners is contaminated with nitrogens, pesticides and sometimes even fecal matter, but hard evidence has been difficult to obtain. With a report in hand, Sussman could insure the story was told. Under the new policy, it's doubtful the report would have made it out of the prison.

In 1994, Governor Wilson signed into law legislation which stripped California prisoners of most civil rights. That law provided the Department of Corrections with an excuse to implement restrictions on access to the media, something they had on their agenda for a long time. State Senator Quentin Kopp, San Francisco Independent, co-authored the legislation, but said it provides, "no authority to change or terminate prior departmental policy in regard to media interviews of prisoners." Director Gomez wrote March 19, 1996, that, "Nothing is contemplated to alter media access" to department facilities. Just ten days after that letter was written, media access to prisons in the state was radically altered.

The Department's self-serving rationalizations for the new media policy ignore the public's interest in being informed about what goes on in the world's largest prison system. Some courts have recognized the importance of a prisoner's ability to communicate with the media. As one judge put it, "In a civilized society, governed by the rule of law, voices of dissent cannot and should not be suppressed. History has been punctuated by writers who have emerged from prison cells to become spokesmen for humanity." Martin v. Rison (N.D. Cal. 1990) 741 F.Supp. 1406, 1425. However, the right-wing dominated United States Supreme Court has upheld prison restrictions on the media's face to face interviews with specific prisoners as long as those prisoners have some ability to communicate with reporters. Pell v. Procunier (1974) 417 U.S. 817.

Prison officials were quick to punish the first prisoner to challenge the restrictions on access to the media. Boston Woodard, who has spent some 15 years at California Men's Colony near San Luis Obispo, was editor of the prison newspaper, The Commentator, until last December. He was relieved of his position and disciplined for allegedly advising reporters on possible strategies to circumvent the prohibition against interviews with specific prisoners. Woodard scoffs at that claim and says his removal from the newspaper staff was retaliation for an article he wrote criticizing the new policy. In an interview with the Recorder, Woodard said prisoners fear the restrictions are part of an effort to shut the public out of the prison system altogether. He said the rule allowing media representatives to interview only those prisoners chosen by prison officials during random tours means "They'll make sure you're in an area where all the inmates (the press) talk to will have the IQ of a cinder block."

Lifers fear the interview ban has even darker implications. California's prison population is 180% over capacity. The Director's policy of housing known enemies on the same prison yard has led to escalating violence. Many privileges, such as family visits and weights, and programs, such as education and vocational classes, have been either taken or drastically reduced in response to pressure from special interest groups. Without such incentives, the large and growing number of young lifers, often street gang members, feel they have nothing to lose and this is raising the level of tension in prisons statewide. As Ken Hartman, a writer serving life without parole at Lancaster's maximum security prison put it, "They (prison officials) know what's coming and they want to be able to control the flow of information."

The California Office of Administrative Law issued its formal ruling December 11, 1996, disapproving the Department of Corrections' proposed regulations banning face-to-face media interviews with prisoners and eliminating confidential correspondence between people in prison and representatives of the media. The CDC immediately refiled the regulation change as an emergency which allows them to enforce the ban for 120 days without a public hearing. Prison administrators must amend their regulation change application and resubmit it to the OAL within the four month period barring any additional extensions of time.

The OAL found that CDC officials failed to respond to many of the comments received from the public during a June hearing and in writing. A total of 100 comments were acknowledged by prisoncrats, 99 opposed to the media ban and one in favor.

The Society of Professional Journalists, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Jewish Congress, the California First Amendment Coalition, the Prison Law Office, PEN Center USA West, California Broadcasters Association, California Senator Quentin Kopp, an attorney representing national news organizations, a reporter for the Orange County Register and several others opposed the proposed ban on media interviews with prisoners.

The CDC's initial response to the comments in opposition to their regulation change application was superficial and arrogant in places. With regard to one comment concerning brutality by prison staff, the OAL said, "The Department's response simply assumes that mistreatment of prisoners does not occur because it is prohibited by Penal Code §§2650, 2651 and 2652. That response does not address the commenter's assertion that confidential media access is the only effective remedy to protect prisoners from abuse should that abuse occur."

The CDC's attempt to shut out the media from the largest prison system in the world is part of a well-coordinated effort in several other states. California's regulations are closely monitored by other prison administrators because the state's prison rules are often used as a model for prison systems in the remainder of the country.

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