State keeps tight curb on media access to inmates

The Associated Press
Wednesday October 04, 2000

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gray Davis is standing behind a California law that imposes some of the nation’s toughest rules on press access to inmates, blocking those reporters who do land face-to-face interviews from taking in cameras or writing materials. 

Davis last week vetoed a bill that would have eased the policy, telling lawmakers he wants to avoid turning convicts into celebrities. 

Critics contend Davis rejected the measure because he fears reporters will unearth what really goes on behind prison walls. 

A reporter who wants to interview a specific inmate in person must apply to the corrections department to get on the inmate’s visitor list, a process that usually takes at least a month, and can only interview the inmate during normal visiting hours. 

Reporters who get permission for a face-to-face interview cannot use cameras or recording devices or take in their own writing materials.  

They must ask prison officials for paper and pencil to take notes. 

State lawmakers voted three consecutive years to ease the restrictions.  

This year’s legislation would have made it easier to arrange interviews, allowing reporters to submit a blanket application covering a year rather than apply for each interview, and use cameras, tape recorders and writing materials. 

Davis, a first-term Democratic governor who campaigned as tough on crime, has now vetoed the bill twice, following the lead of his Republican predecessor, Pete Wilson. 

Inmate interviews are particularly important during the current debate over whether innocent people are being sent to death row, said Peter Sussman, a former San Francisco Chronicle editor. 

Journalists “are the court of last resort if they’re cutting off appeals,” said Sussman, who wrote a 1993 book on the subject, “Committing Journalism.”  

“Any attempt to restrict press access to prisoners has the appearance of aiding a cover-up, even if that’s not the governor’s intent.” 

The American Civil Liberties Union accused Davis of vetoing the bill because “he is afraid the truth will come out.” 

Davis spokeswoman Hilary McLean denied that. 

“This bill is inconsistent with the national trend to reduce, not expand, rights of prisoners,” Davis wrote in his veto message last week, referring to prohibitions on inmates profiting from their crimes by selling book, TV or movie rights. 


“The purpose of incarceration is punishment and deterrence; 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,” Davis wrote lawmakers. 

The trend was largely started by California. 

“It is just about the most restrictive state in the country,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “California has really put the issue on the front burner.” 

Dalglish took issue with the argument that media access brings celebrity to inmates. Taxpayers need to know how prisons are run, she said. 

“The inmates who are celebrities were celebrities before they went to prison,” Dalglish said. 

Only Mississippi has a more restrictive policy, barring face-to-face and telephone interviews, according to the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). In California, inmates can telephone reporters collect; the calls can be monitored. 

Four other states — Arizona, Idaho, Indiana and Kansas — also block face-to-face inmate interviews, most of them imitating California, said SPJ President Kyle Niederpruem, an assistant city editor at the Indianapolis Star. 

California’s prisons cost taxpayers $4.6 billion a year, and the public needs to do know what is going on in them, she said. 

“You have some of the most expensive and most populous prisons in the nation ... and they’re just keeping it hidden away,” Niederprum said. 

Corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton said reporters have plenty of access. They can go on prison tours virtually any day they wish, and interview inmates they randomly meet on those tours, she said. 

“If they want to do some expose on the prison system, there’s absolutely nothing to prevent them from doing that,” Thornton said. 

She and Davis noted that journalists can accept collect phone calls from inmates, and inmates can mail them letters — though the letters are subject to censorship. 

The department had a more open policy before 1971, when Black Panther George Jackson was interviewed at San Quentin 66 times in six months. He subsequently was involved in an escape attempt and riot in which two inmates and three guards were killed — the subject of a book, “The Road to Hell.” 

The department’s interview ban was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1974, but overturned the same year when state lawmakers passed an “Inmate Bill of Rights.” It was reimposed in 1994 when the pendulum swung back to the view that inmates should have no more rights than the basic rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, Thornton said. 


On the Net: 

Read the bill, AB2101 by Assemblywoman Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, at http://www.assembly.ca.gov 

Society of Professional Journalists Web site with links to states’ inmate access policies, www.spj.org