Media Restrictions of Prisons
Assembly approves bill granting media prison access
SACRAMENTO (AP) - News reporters would have an easier time arranging and conducting interviews with prison inmates under legislation the Assembly approved Monday.
Lawmakers said it was time that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger give the media access to a system he is seeking to overhaul and expand, both financially and structurally.
"We must pass this bill and the governor must sign it if we're going to restore accountability in the Department of Corrections," said Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, R-Orange.
The Assembly sent the bill to the Senate on a 60-1 vote.
Spitzer has opposed previous efforts by the media to expand prison access. But he decided to support the legislation after he saw a department memo this spring instructing prison officials to hide a story from him about the housing of sex offenders in his district.
Earlier this year, lawmakers accused top corrections officials of shuffling high-risk sex offender parolees to different locations every four days. The transfers were meant to avoid a state law requiring offenders to be housed at least a half-mile away from schools, lawmakers said. Department officials denied that they were doing so.
Criticism over the handling of the program persuaded other lawmakers to change their vote from previous years.
"It's about time we start holding them accountable," said Jay LaSuer, R-La Mesa. "There's got to be some ethics and honesty in the running of this system."
The bill by Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, would allow reporters to go through prison officials to set up face-to-face interviews with inmates. It also would prohibit prison officials from recording the interviews.
"This vote really sends a message to this governor to open up the prisons,"
Once admitted, reporters can be prohibited from bringing writing or
recording equipment. Romero's bill specifies that reporters can use pens,
pencils, paper, and audio and video recording equipment.
Former governors Gray Davis, a Democrat, and Pete Wilson, a Republican, vetoed similar legislation. Schwarzenegger spokesman Bill Maile declined to comment on whether the governor would sign the bill if it passes the Senate and is sent to his desk.
Article Launched: 8/07/2006 06:42 AM
Aiming for access
When the California State Assembly gathers today in Sacramento, one of its first orders of business will be to discuss a bill that has gone down in flames - twice.
And both times, it was a miscarriage of justice.
The bill, which aims to open up prisons to greater scrutiny, is now Senate Bill 1521 by Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, who has been a driving force for prison reform. Sen. Romero has hosted countless hearings on the prison system's inept practices and procedures, which have spurred statewide calls for reform.
Perhaps most frustrating about this particular access bill - in its various incarnations - is that it easily passed both the Assembly and Senate, only to be vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Twice. At the time, he indicated that the bills weren't necessary because the news media already have "wide-ranging access to both prisons and inmates."
As we've noted before, we have two prisons in Vacaville, and we certainly haven't seen our staff granted "wide-ranging access to both prisons and inmates."
While local prison staffs have been as accommodating as possible, we note that the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation refuses to allow the arrangement of one-on-one interviews with prisoners.
To put questions to a particular inmate, reporters must write to that inmate and request to be placed on the prisoner's list of approved visitors. Even then, reporters can visit only during normal visiting hours - which are limited - and the reporter is not allowed to take in notebooks, pencils or tape recorders.
The result is that little information about life inside the state's 33 adult institutions has become public knowledge. It's quite clear that without any kind of oversight or accountability, mistreatment, abuse of power and poor practices have been allowed to perpetuate.
A series of state Senate hearings in recent years and a number of reports and audits have revealed a shocking system in which inmates have died from medical neglect and abuse, and a "code of silence" that was standard operating procedure.
Lawsuits have started to pile up, and in April, a court-appointed receiver took over the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's medical system.
We know that Sen. Romero's bill is a small start to shedding light on a system that needs scrutiny. But it is a start.
Taxpayers have a right to know what goes on behind prison walls. After all, we fund the $8 million it is going to cost to operate the system this year, and we are going to be asked to fund the $6 billion the governor is seeking to build two new prisons to ease overcrowding woes.
The current lack of access has contributed to a dark environment in which inappropriate activities and procedures have been allowed to ferment.
We encourage the Assembly to take care of business today, so the bill can quickly move to the Senate floor for a final vote. Then the governor will have one more chance to prove that prison reform really is a priority for him and for California.
Posted on Thu, Sep. 30, 2004
Schwarzenegger vetoes bill easing media access to inmates
SACRAMENTO - Expressing fears that increased media access to state prisons would make inmates into celebrities, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill Thursday aiming to give new rights to reporters and inmates behind prison walls.
The governor's action preserves restrictions established during Gov. Pete Wilson's administration to limit one-on-one interviews between reporters and inmates.
In a veto message, Schwarzenegger called the legislation by Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, "unnecessary." He said the media can already interview random inmates during tours and can arrange one-on-one interviews through prison visitation programs.
But backers note that those interviews can take up to 30 days to arrange and are recorded, watched and often conducted without a reporter being able to write notes or take photographs or videos.
Supporters of the bill included the California Newspaper Publishers Association, American Civil Liberties Union, California Broadcasters Association and the Catholic Conference of Bishops.
Schwarzenegger said the state's 1996-era policy is modeled after those upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Officials also say the rules are needed to maintain security at the state's 32 prisons.
The governor called it "important to avoid treating inmates as celebrities. Activities that would glamorize criminals at the expense of victims and the general public are unacceptable."
With the veto, Romero said Schwarzenegger "reneged on his promise to bring transparency to California's correctional system, which we know is plagued by abuse and scandal. Behind those prison walls wards were beaten, prisoners starved and bled to death and rogue guards were protected by a code of silence."
Schwarzenegger's veto marked the fourth time such legislation has been defeated. Wilson vetoed a similar bill, while Gov. Gray Davis did so twice.
ON THE NET
Read SB1164, at http://www.senate.ca.gov
STATE PRISONS' REVOLVING DOOR
September 15, 2004
Freedom of the press may be a widely cherished principle, but under some governments, journalists are still struggling to gain basic liberties, such as the right to interview prisoners.
For instance, in California.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is currently deciding whether to change that, restoring journalists' access to prisoners by way of a bill on his desk that would let reporters schedule prearranged interviews with prisoners, as well as use reporting tools that are currently banned, such as notebooks, tape recorders and cameras.
There's no need to look as far away as Iraq to see how prisons develop a perverse internal culture when they operate outside public scrutiny. California prisons in recent years have been rife with accusations of grossly excessive force by guards and lack of basic medical care, to say nothing of failure to educate or rehabilitate criminals.
Even so, the governor's approval of the measure, SB 1164 by state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), is anything but assured. Former Gov. Gray Davis vetoed a similar bill. And in May, SB 1164 barely passed the Assembly. One stumbling block was a letter that Michael Neal, a deputy to California Department of Corrections Director Jeanne Woodford, sent the Assembly, arguing that the legislation "would return the CDC to a disruptive process where a media request for an inmate interview required removing that inmate from their regularly scheduled activity and providing the security and physical location for the interview." It's absurd, however, to argue that occasional media interviews would inconvenience inmates, who have virtually no scheduled activities since rehabilitation programs were gutted. Because lawyer and family visits are routinely accommodated, the state's security concerns also make no sense.
It's likely that Woodford, as the former warden of San Quentin State Prison, remembers how her most infamous inmate, mass killer Charles Manson, was a publicity hound who kept alive a cult of "admirers." The machinations of Manson and a few other prisoners led the CDC to adopt the overbearing media restrictions in the first place, in 1996. But fear of publicity is not enough reason to hide the prison system itself behind a ban on real interviews with prisoners.
Schwarzenegger campaigned on a promise to open up government. Just like making the DMV consumer-friendly or auditing state spending, Romero's bill would be a step toward that.
Public scrutiny for prisons
IT'S BEEN nearly 10 years since the California Department of Corrections adopted rules to bar journalists from interviewing prisoners, abolishing firsthand accounts of life inside walled-off compounds, hidden from public view.
The change ended two decades of open scrutiny that had flawlessly occurred without a hint of danger to inmates, guards or public security.
Meanwhile, for the past decade, the prisons have been stewing in chaos that is only now coming to light: internal corruption, abuse of prisoners, cost overruns and guard misconduct that has cost taxpayers billions of dollars and put the system on the verge of a federal takeover.
Sunshine is the antidote to these types of abuses of the public trust. That's why SB1164 by Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, is so critical. It restores media access to prisons -- particularly the right to confidential, face-to-face interviews and a guarantee of no reprisals against the inmates who grant them.
Three similar bills have passed the state Legislature only to be vetoed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. This time we appeal to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was elected on a platform of open government, to remove the cloak of secrecy by signing SB1164.
Open prisons to public scrutiny
Tuesday, June 22, 2004
EIGHT YEARS ago, California sealed off its inmates from most media contact. California legislators have tried, and failed, to open the doors that were slammed shut by Gov. Pete Wilson and kept shut by Gov. Gray Davis.
If anything, the need to find out what is going on behind those walls -- in a system that devours $5.7 billion of state tax dollars each year -- is even more compelling today. The Department of Corrections has been embroiled in various scandals, from runaway budgets to allegations of a "code of silence" that makes it all but impossible to identify and discipline rogue guards.
This is a system that could use some sunshine. But the media guidelines make it extremely difficult for news reporters to get an inside look at prison life. Journalists are provided limited access during visiting hours or on certain tours -- and are not allowed to bring in notebooks or recording devices.
Sen. Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles Democrat who has become one of the state's leaders on prison reform, has proposed SB1164 to significantly widen media access to prisons.
"I believe in a democratic society we have to have the media -- as not necessarily a partner in what we're doing ... but as oversight to what we're doing,'' Romero said by telephone Monday.
Under her bill, the Department of Corrections would be required to allow journalists "upon reasonable notice" to interview inmates in person. It also would require the department to allow confidential correspondence from prisoners to journalists.
Romero also proposes to lift the restrictions on cameras and recording devices. "They should be able to go in there with the tools of their trade -- and the tools of their trade include the camera," she said.
Romero's bill cleared the Senate on a 23-11 vote and is moving through the Assembly.
Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, trying to increase the chances of a bill reaching Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, had proposed a moderate alternative to broadening media access to prisons. Leno's AB1866 would have maintained restrictions on cameras and confidential letters. On Monday, Leno announced that he was withdrawing his version and throwing his full support behind Romero's stronger plan.
The Assembly should now move quickly to approve SB1164.
Senate approves measure to let media interview prisoners
SACRAMENTO (AP) - The state Senate approved a bill Thursday that would
give journalists increased access to prison inmates.
The Senate voted 23-11 to approve the bill, sending it to the Assembly.
Currently, reporters must sign up as regular visitors, vying with family members and friends for visitation time that has been cut in half under new rules this year. Signing up for an inmate's visitor's list takes about 30 days.
Reporters can readily arrange to visit prisons, but not to interview specific inmates. They also can write to ask inmates to call them collect, but those calls may be recorded by prison officials and are limited to 15 minutes.
The restrictions on media were imposed eight years ago by Gov. Pete Wilson. The Department of Corrections says the rules are needed to prevent the media from glamorizing inmates and profiting from celebrity interviews.
Another bill, by Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, would let a reporter visiting one inmate talk to any willing prisoner at the same facility during regular visiting hours.
Bills to overturn the prison regulations were vetoed once by Wilson
and twice by Democratic former Gov. Gray Davis. New Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
has said he favors more open government, which backers hope indicates he
will sign a repeal.
Read the bill, SB1164, at http://www.sen.ca.gov
Posted on Sat, Feb. 21, 2004
Media hoping governor will loosen prison interview restrictions
SACRAMENTO - News organizations are hoping that a string of prison scandals and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's talk about a more open government will translate into fewer restrictions on interviews with inmates.
The groups are backing bills by Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, and Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, that would overturn 8-year-old regulations that prevent reporters from arranging interviews through the Department of Corrections with specific prisoners.
Critics say the regulations have made it tougher for the news media - and the public - to learn what goes on behind prison walls. Recently, California's prison system has come under serious scrutiny after a series of riots, reports of secret organizations among guards and deaths of inmates.
"This will just bring further transparency to the department, and given that we are talking about the fastest growing department in state government ... more transparency is better," said Leno.
Department officials say reporters have plenty of access to work on their stories, despite the limitations.
"In practice, the media are in our prisons nearly every single day," said spokeswoman Terry Thornton.
To obtain a face-to-face interview with a particular inmate, the regulations require a reporter to write and ask the prisoner to send a form the journalist must fill out to get on the inmate's list of authorized visitors.
Once a reporter has been placed on the list, a process that takes about 30 working days, the reporter can visit the inmate during regular visiting times. But visiting hours are generally limited to weekends and reporters must compete for time with the inmate's family, friends and attorneys, critics say.
And the rules bar reporters from bringing tape recorders and cameras. Spiral notebooks with wire that could be turned into a weapon can be turned away, but paper, pens and pencils are allowed, said Thornton.
The prison will also provide paper and pencils, according to the department's media policies.
Reporters can write and request that a prisoner call them collect, although those conversations are limited to 15 minutes and can be recorded by prison officials.
Reporters are also allowed to interview prisoners they encounter at random during prison tours.
Critics of the rules say they are so limiting that many news organizations have cut back on their prison coverage.
"It's not that there isn't any access whatsoever," said Jim Ewert, an attorney for the California Newspaper Publishers Association. "It's just that it's so diminished now that it's nearly impossible to conduct meaningful interviews."
Romero's bill would let reporters again arrange face-to-face interviews with a particular inmate through department media officers, although officials could limit the number of interviews a prisoner could have, set reasonable limits on time and place and bar interviews that would pose a threat to public safety. The bill also notes that interviews have been arranged in the past without any safety problems and there is "no legitimate reason for a blanket ban on media interviews with specific prisoners."
The legislation would permit the department to set up a pool interview arrangement if officials received a large number of requests for interviews with the same prisoner.
Leno's bill, as now written, wouldn't go that far. It would expand the current interview policy by letting a reporter who got on one prisoner's visitation list also visit any inmate at the same facility during regular visiting hours if the prisoner was allowed to have visitors and was willing to be interviewed. That arrangement would be good for a year and could be renewed.
Both bills would require prison officials to continue to allow journalists to interview prisoners at random while taking a prison tour or doing a story on a prison activity, program or event.
And both bills would allow reporters to receive confidential mail from prisoners unless it posed a threat to public safety - as well as let reporters bring tape recorders, cameras, pens, pencils, paper and other material needed to conduct the interviews.
Hoping to avoid a veto, Leno said he hopes to get some signal from Schwarzenegger's staff about how the governor feels about the bills before considering any changes.
The regulations the bills target were developed under Republican former Gov. Pete Wilson, who argued they would reduce the chance that media coverage would turn inmates into celebrities.
"Interviews with prisoners about their crimes tend to glamorize criminal activity and criminals at the cost of pain to crime victims," Wilson said in vetoing 1997 legislation that would have overturned the new rules.
Former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, using some of the same arguments as Wilson, twice vetoed bills that would have scrapped the regulations.
Backers of the two bills hope Schwarzenegger, who advocated more open government during the recall campaign that ousted Davis, will be willing to change.
Easing access to prisoners could make it easier to uncover, or head off, prison scandals, they say.
Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Terri Carbaugh said "open government is of importance to this administration," but she also said the governor wouldn't take a position on the bills until he sees them in their final form.
On the Net: Read the bills, SB1164 and AB1866, at www.senate.ca.gov
. Department of Corrections' media policies are at www.corr.ca.gov/CommunicationsOffice/PressReleases/media_policies.asp
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