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California Whistleblowers Silenced, Punished

Two California prisoners, suspected of tipping reporters to a controversial story inside the R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility near San Diego, were placed in administrative segregation (aka "the hole") and later transferred to other prisons.

A San Diego television station reported in September, 1997, that workers in the prison's CMT Blues clothing manufacturing facility had taken materials imported from Honduras and sewn "Made in U.S.A." labels on them. Shortly thereafter, prison officials placed prisoners Charles Ervin, 39, and Shearwood Fleming, age not available, into segregation for "attempting to impugn the credibility" of the prison industries program "by contacting the local news media," according to documents obtained by sources close to the prison.

Prison spokesman J.P. Tremblay said of the U.S.A. labels that prisoners were being taught to sew with scrap materials and that none of the products left the prison. And Lt. Terry Hill, spokesman for the Donovan prison, said Ervin and Fleming were isolated and transferred for their own safety.

"The inmates' jobs at CMT Blues are considered very nice," Hill said. "They get paid the minimum wage, and other inmates who suspected these two individuals were concerned that their employment may be adversely affected as a result of this. Therefore, they were placed in administrative segregation."

Heather McKay, a lawyer with the San Rafael-based Prison Law Office who is representing Ervin and Fleming, said the pair told her that no threats were made against them by any other prisoners.

Once the two suspected whistleblowers were placed in the hole and transferred, attempts by reporters to contact them for follow up interviews were thwarted by the California Department of Corrections (CDC) ban on press interviews with prisoners.

Opponents of the ban on press interviews said that this case illustrates the policy's shortcomings. State Sen. Quentin Kopp, Ind-San Francisco, who sponsored a bill to overturn the ban, said the Donovan case is a "genuine example" of why reporters should be allowed to interview prisoners face-to-face.

State Sen. John Vasconcellos, D-Santa Clara, who supported Kopp's bill, stated, "Government that is closed is suspicious and fascist."

The state Senate voted to overturn the ban, sending the bill to Gov. Pete Wilson.

Wilson vetoed it.

Sacramento Bee

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