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Continuing California's Prison Interview Ban

by W. Wisely

For the second year in a row, California Governor Gray Davis vetoed a bill aimed to restore news media access to prisoners. On Monday, October 2, 2000, Davis vetoed the bill, sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists, which would've allowed reporters to interview specific prisoners. Davis said he killed the bill, which enjoyed strong bipartisan backing, out of sympathy for crime victims and to maintain order within the largest gulag in "the free world," according to an online interview posted at

"The purpose of incarceration is punishment and deterrence," Davis parroted in a prepared statement. "It is not to provide additional celebrity to convicts, many of whose criminal acts were brutal and violent, thereby causing further pain to the victims and their loved ones." It was not immediately clear how the slice of pizza that triggered one of the first 25-yearstolife sentences in the state would be shielded from unwanted publicity thanks to the Governor's veto.

Under current prison regulations, reporters are not allowed to interview specific prisoners without prior permission. And, the Department of Corrections seemingly gives out such permission only in cases guaranteed to fit the political agenda of Davis, the system, or the guards union.

Representatives of the media are unlikely to be granted access to wrongfully convicted people, prisoners' rights advocates, writers, or critics of the system. Instead, reporters are free to wander about predesignated areas within the prison, and question prisoners at random. Laptops, notepads, and recorders are not allowed.

"We're a little stumped by the governor's veto," said Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publisher's Association. "The bill passed with strong bipartisan support, and I can't remember any groups that came forward in opposition.

" In the past, several victims' rights groups testified against it because of the glamorization issues they perceived. But, this year no one opposed it." The strength of the governor's opposition to interviews between reporters and prisoners may be understandable in light of recent revelations.

Nationally syndicated television news programs have featured the unfolding story of how California prison guards staged fights between enemy prison gang members, sometimes shooting the combatants, then falsifying records and threatening witnesses to cover the crimes up.

At the same time, over a score of deaths at one of the state's women's prisons has resulted in state and federal probes into the quality of medical care provided to female prisoners in the richest state in the union. Falsified test results for HIV and HCV from the same man doing business with the state's prison system under two different names has spurred a campaign to have thousands of prisoners retested.

It seems that the more light directed at the state's prison system, the more stories about abuse, misconduct, negligence, and official malfeasance came to the public attention. "The whole notion of celebrity is not what this bill is about," said Randall Lyman, cochair of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the SPJ's Freedom of Information Committee.

"The fact is most prisoners who are interviewed by the press do not become celebrities. And the fact that a few people might be emotionally upset is not more important than the rights all of us have under the First Amendment."

Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publisher's Association called the veto "a sad day for the press." The state's prison system is becoming larger and costing taxpayers more money, he said, but the public is being restricted access to it.

"This is about the press' ability to investigate what goes on inside prison walls. And the governor obviously does not want that to happen," he said.

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