Prison Media Access
Long Beach Press Telegram
Open up the prisons
Wednesday, March 24, 2004 -
The unreasonable hoops that journalists must jump through to access prisoners in California's correctional system are relics of the secrecy and silence that the state must now eliminate. It's time for the hoops to go.
Encouragingly, two bills that would allow reporters greater access to inmates passed Assembly and Senate committees Tuesday. They deserve approval by the full Legislature as well.
The financial and managerial scandals surrounding the prison system makes a strong case for more openness and transparency in the system. Allowing journalists greater access to interview prisoners should be part of those changes.
Under current rules reporters must wait several weeks for an interview, after the lengthy bureaucratic process of applying for a spot on an inmate's visitor list. No recording devices are allowed. Nor are prisoners allowed to correspond with journalists confidentially.
The two bills pending in the Legislature would allow reporters to conduct prearranged interviews (so long as they do not pose a safety risk for the public or threaten the security of the prison) and would permit cameras, notebooks and other recording devices. Reporters who gained access through an inmate's visitors list would be allowed to visit any other prisoner at the same prison for a year.
Advocates of restricted access say that interviewing prisoners more freely would glorify their crimes. However, reporting crime stories is not synonymous with excusing those crimes. Most people recognize the difference.
The prison system has suffered tremendously from its self-imposed isolation and secrecy. So have taxpayers, from the massive cost overruns. Improving access to journalists is one sound way to open up the system to greater public scrutiny.
Posted on Sun, Mar. 21, 2004
Impressions from inside the men's colony
SAN LUIS OBISPO - You don't get far inside California Men's Colony before you know you're not in the free world anymore.
In my case, the feeling dawned before I passed through the first massive steel gates or encountered the first denim-clad felon.
First, a quick catch-up on what I was doing in CMC:
I earned my invitation by questioning the salary of a correctional officer (he made $133,000 last year, mostly in overtime). The folks at CMC, and some readers of this column, felt I didn't properly understand what officers face in the course of their job.
So there I was in the lobby of the administrative building, which has the period feel of a veterans memorial building, looking at a wall-mounted model of the prison with Lt. Shelly Thompson.
Pointing to the lower left quadrant, Thompson was talking about a fight there on March 3 between whites and Hispanics. Now anyone in that quadrant who's Hispanic or white can't come out of his cell like normal. But anyone classified "black" or "other" is free to move about.
Wow. For a minute, I thought I was back in the 1950s (the lobby's furnishings reinforced this).
The rules are different here.
Some other impressions from a short two hours behind the walls:
• It's very intimidating to walk across the open yard and feel yourself surrounded and vastly outnumbered by felons.
• There's something wrong when CMC has more mentally ill inmates than any other California prison, but the specialized facilities used to treat them get built and staffed at other prisons. According to Thompson, this helps explain the overtime that drove Officer David J. Betancourt's pay into the $100,000s last year -- he was transporting CMC inmates all over the state under court orders.
Thompson's right when she points out that this isn't Betancourt's fault. But somebody up the line had better be paying attention. What's going on here, and why are they wasting our money this way?
• Sgt. Doug Forker, who works in the mental health section, tells me you've got to always be prepared for the inmates to switch gears and go from smiling to punching. He uses light banter to keep control. "The things we make work," he said, shaking his head, "it's amazing."
I'm not ready to back down on the issue of pay and perks to correctional officers, but Forker's right about the job he and his peers do. It's often amazing, particularly for anyone who is comfortable out here in the free world.
• • •
I insulted offroaders with an overblown comment in a column last week, and discovered two important things about them: They don't like to be insulted. And they're well-organized.
After looking back at my comment, which had to do with drinking and maiming and the Oceano Dunes, I agree with them that I took my hyperbole too far.
And so, while the offroaders and I may never agree on everything, I
offer them a sincere apology in this case, along with a promise to do better
Silas Lyons' column appears every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 781-7929.
Bills urge more access to prisons
Sacramento -- Two lawmakers are reviving legislation to allow more media access to inmates, saying recently reported troubles inside prisons show the need for more scrutiny of the state's $5.3 billion prison system.
Bills to reverse California's strict rules limiting journalists' ability to interview prisoners were vetoed by both Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and Democrat Gray Davis. But legislators are hopeful they may win the signature this year of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who campaigned on a theme of providing more openness in government operations.
And with a recent federal report and legislative hearings airing allegations of corruption and coverups among guards and administrators inside prisons, both state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, and Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, say the need is clear for more oversight of the state's corrections department.
Leno noted that Schwarzenegger has proposed saving state money by eliminating an independent state agency that acts as a prison watchdog. Increasing media access to inmates is a cheap way to allow the public and policymakers more insight into what goes on behind prison walls, Leno said.
"This is oversight without any cost to taxpayers,'' he said.
Leno, the chairman of the Assembly's Public Safety Committee, plans to introduce his bill later this week. Romero, who for two weeks co-chaired hearings that detailed problems inside prisons and the difficulties whistle- blowers face in coming forward, introduced her bill, SB1164, on Monday.
Both are similar to legislation last attempted by former Assemblywoman Carole Migden of San Francisco. Ideas to increase media access to prisons have enjoyed bipartisan support in the Legislature.
Prison rules created in 1996 by Wilson make it difficult for reporters to set up interviews with specific prisoners -- it often takes more than a month. Journalists are also prohibited from using notebooks or recording devices during interviews, and can only meet with inmates during visiting hours, which are on weekends.
Leno and Romero want to change that to require the Department of Corrections to help reporters meet with inmates, provide more flexibility in the timing of interviews and allow notebooks, recorders or video cameras.
Restricted access has significantly decreased the media's coverage of prisons at the same time the state's corrections budget has soared, said Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association. The rules essentially make it difficult for the public to determine whether the state is spending money wisely, according to Ewert.
"This is simply about open government -- this is a troubled agency, and it's a $5-billion-a-year agency,'' she said. "It needs some sunshine.''
Davis twice vetoed Migden's bills for more prison access. His vetoes, he said then, were based partly on concerns he had that inmates would gain celebrity and that celebrity would cause harm to crime victims.
Crime victims' groups appear poised to use the same arguments again.
"It sounds like all we're doing is giving prisoners more rights,'' said Harriet Salarno, president of Crime Victims United of California. "Let's remember why these people are in prison to begin with. Why do we need to glorify them?''
Salarno said her group would likely lobby against both bills.
A spokesman for Schwarzenegger said the governor would not comment on pending legislation. But the governor emphasized openness as a campaign theme, suggesting the public is entitled to know more about the internal workings of the government they pay for.
"For a governor who wants to blow up boxes and let people now how government operates, this is in line with that,'' Leno said.
E-mail Mark Martin at email@example.com
BILL NUMBER: SB 1164 INTRODUCED
INTRODUCED BY Senator Romero
FEBRUARY 2, 2004
An act to add Sections 2602 and 2603 to the Penal Code,
LEGISLATIVE COUNSEL'S DIGEST
SB 1164, as introduced, Romero. Media access to prisoners.
THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA DO ENACT AS FOLLOWS:
SECTION 1. It is the intent of the Legislature in enacting
Three Strikes Legal - Index