Sunday, April 12, 1998

Media Are Welcome to Prison

Contrary to what many people have either read or heard somewhere in the media recently, California prisons have not banned media interviews with inmates.

Inmate interviews are permitted. The media knows it, and the media is conducting them. Of the over 200 reporter visits to prisons last year, about 120 of them involved an inmate interview. These included on camera, face to face interviews for television.

These are the facts. There is nothing to restrict the flow of information to the public about the operation of the state’s prison system. There is nothing to prevent communication between the media and inmates. There is nothing to censor the content of inmate communication.

The confusion about media interviews has arisen because the California Department of Corrections no longer allows inmates to make special appointments for interviews. This is a reasonable restriction, and one that is imposed by a number of states. Being able to visit whenever one wants and with whom one wants are among the rights criminal offenders lose when they come to prison.

Inmates have the same access to media that they have to their own families and friends. Inmates can communicate with media through letters, phone calls, and personal visits, as they do with their own families and friends. Inmates are permitted to place collect telephone calls and the conversations may be recorded. It is not necessary for media to notify the California Department of Corrections (CDC) before communicating with an inmate.

It is not Department policy to punish inmates because they contact media or criticize prison programs or operations. Inmates have been disciplined, however, for conspiracy in attempting to circumvent the rules of prison operations, offenses they were aware would bring penalties just as they were aware breaking laws would land them in prison.

In repealing most of the Inmate Bill of Rights in 1994, lawmakers intended that prison inmates have only those rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The change in policy in 1996 to end special arrangements for inmate interviews with the media reflected a change in philosophy by California legislators who voted to roll back California’s Inmate Bill of Rights. Accordingly, after a public hearing, CDC returned to media policies that were in place before the Inmate Bill of Rights was enacted 20 years ago.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the policy in 1974. Justices ruled against both the inmates and the media who claimed their freedom of speech and freedom of press rights were violated.

Television talk and entertainment shows have been effected by the policy change. They want long, on camera interviews with high profile inmates. Here’s how American Journal pitched Charles Manson for an interview "this is a chance for the nation to hear your message! Your Plan! Our program will deliver your message to the nation."

Legislation to require the Department of Corrections to make special arrangements for inmates to be interviewed by the media was rejected by Governor Pete Wilson who wrote in his veto message "the purpose of imprisonment is punishment and deterrence of crime. Those that are housed in state prison should not be treated as celebrities. Just as the Legislature has enacted a ban upon activities which would allow a criminal to profit materially from his crime, so should prison officials prevent media exposure that allows the criminal to enjoy the notoriety at the expense of others."

California policy is designed to provide the public with complete information about how its prisons are being operated. While a handful of reporters continue to fuss about perceived inconveniences, most working journalists simply are going about the business of getting the information they want, interviewing the inmates they want, and writing their stories.