by Gary Hunter
Immediately upon taking office, in January 2005, New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC) Commissioner George Hayman imposed a total ban on media interviews with prisoners. DOC spokesman Matthew Shuman said the policy was put in place because of security concerns.
"Anything can happen in prison," said Schuman. "The press still has the option of writing to inmates if they have questions."
Peter Sussman, author, journalist and an expert on prison/media relations calls the ban the tightest in the country. Journalists are not allowed to interview, accept collect calls or visit with prisoners.
Edward Barocas, legal director of New Jersey's American Civil Liberties Union pointed out that refusing to allow reporters to be placed on a prisoner's visitation list restricts their rights as citizens.
"Such a practice would appear to violate freedom of speech and freedom of the press, which are crucial to ensuring government accountability," said Barocas. "When journalists are not allowed into a prison, you have to wonder what could be covered up and why."
Others hold similar concerns. Edward Martone is director of education and policy for the Association of Correction. He also defends the need for accessibility.
"The Department of Corrections is a public institution funded by tax dollars. The public has a right to know how its money is being spent," he said.
John O'Brien, executive director of the New Jersey Press Association stated his intention to contact state officials to have the policy rescinded.
"I can't imagine what they hope to accomplish by the institution of this policy," said O'Brien.
On June 14, 2006 the story broke in the Newark Star Ledger. The next day the director dropped the ban. Hayman has tentatively agreed to allow interviews on a case by case basis.
DOC spokeswoman Dierdre Fedkeheuer reaffirmed that security concerns still exist although she could not specifically recall any incident in which a reporter had been placed in danger or had jeopardized security in a New Jersey prison.
As it stands interviews can be denied for a variety of reasons. For example, strong objections by a victim's relatives are enough to keep a prisoner interview from airing on TV. In some cases prisoners themselves decline the opportunity.
U.S. Supreme Court rulings have held that the media has no First Amendment right to interviews with prisoners.
Access to prisoners is at the discretion of prison officials and many states are imposing stricter standards. Not surprisingly, states with the strictest media bans, including New Jersey and California, also seem to be the ones most beset by staff brutality and corruption, medical neglect and other problems.
Sources: Newark Star-Ledger; Philadelphia Inquirer
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