These facts do not make it into the public sphere in any meaningful way. This allows the system and its overseers to create their own narrative, leaving the public oblivious to the realities of these institutions. Administrators are confident it’s unlikely anyone outside the system will ever scrutinize their conduct or the conditions of a facility. The primary solution to correcting such problems is to bring attention to them. In a free society, information is often provided to the public by the press. In America, it’s a right guaranteed to be unabridged by our First Amendment. Then why isn’t there more free press access to prisons and prisoners?
Free U.S. citizens enjoy expansive First Amendment rights, particularly in regards to speech and media. Concerning its incarcerated populations, that same right is significantly narrower and freedom of the press is severely curtailed when it concerns access to prisons.
Between 1974 to 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court decided multiple cases, tightly restricting press access. Ruling that, so long as restrictions are “content neutral,” and other lines of communication are available, there is no special right to information in prisons for the press.
Specifically, Houchins v. KQED (1978) defined what “meaningful” press access is, and to what extent prison officials may deny information. The court found that the constitution has no mechanism that “compel[s] the government to provide the media with information or access to it on demand,” including interviewing specific prisoners. These restrictive rulings are why the media is not free to investigate allegations of illegal conditions in prisons as in the general public. Even prison officials who would be willing to speak to the media are not typically free to do so without clearance from a communications department.
Anyone who feels that these standards are reasonable would do well to remember that marginalized populations, like prisoners, are at the mercy of failing, often negligent, government bureaucracies. Unless there is a story about a specific case, prisoners are a nameless, unrepresented population.
Administrators often spin a typical narrative to the public, visiting legislators, judges, or oversight groups: Tales of how staff “control offenders” with security and operational measures; how prisoners are processed or properly treated; or, worst case examples of violent acts designed to further isolate prisoners and justify the administrators’ conduct. Due to media restrictions, and the long structured negative views about prisoners, it is a hard narrative to change.
To do so, prisoners have turned to writing books, or for journals, newspapers and magazines, and more recently turning to online outlets. That has advanced the conversation about mass incarceration and to change the carefully sculpted narrative that frames prisoners as deserving of any maltreatment the system metes out.
Even so, a professional press is vital to an informed public. The media should be allowed to look under any rotting log wherever it is lying. Lyle May, a prisoner who wrote about this issue, summed it up, “It is time to free the press in prison ... Let the general public see and hear what really occurs in its institutions—not just the good news stories or the violent ones. In doing so, lawmakers can better address the needs of the penal system and the people contained within it; the public can evolve its understanding of prisons; and the press can regain its authority as a check and balance against government powers.”
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