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FOI UPDATE 2000: Access to prisons

By Kyle Niederpruem

Prison policies restricting public and press access to inmates and information continue to be a pressing issue across the United States. At present, journalists, access advocates and others are challenging media access rules that ban tape recorders and cameras in prisons and deny reporters the right to interview specific prisoners.

The most recent developments have centered on four states.

Some of the most restrictive access policies are found in the California prison system. Gov. Gray Davis recently vetoed a bill that would have restored reporters' rights to interview inmates one-on-one.

Reporters are allowed to interview prisoners they encounter randomly during prison tours, but they cannot set up an interview ahead of time. Journalists also have difficulty getting permission for prison tours. It is possible for a journalist to get on an inmate's visitors list, but the reporters are not allowed to take tape recorders, notebooks or pens into these interviews.

In a current court case, the Northern California Chapter of SPJ and the California First Amendment Coalition are co-plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging restrictions on executions on death row.

Assemblywoman Carole Migden has reintroduced a bill that has been vetoed twice. The bill, AB 2101, would restore journalists' ability to interview particular prisoners and to receive confidential mail from inmates.

Last September, the Florida Department of Corrections announced rules that would limit reporters' access to prisoners. The new rules were announced on the department's web site and the media were never contacted.

Among issues the corrections officials were examining: the distinction between a visit and an interview, whether press interviews make celebrities of prisoners, whether victims and law enforcement personnel should be consulted before inmates can be interviewed, the burden on staff of media interviews, whether death-row inmates should be interviewed, and the standards for a "legitimate" journalist.

After meeting with journalists last November, officials took some of the issues off the table, but still wanted to be able to determine who was "a legitimate journalist" and to block interviews that might contain content that victims or others might find offensive.

Journalists in Michigan are banned from prisons except as regularly scheduled visitors under Michigan Department of Corrections policies. Cameras and tape recorders are not allowed in the visitation areas. Interviews with prisoners in halfway houses also are banned.

Earlier this year, state Sen. Philip Hoffman introduced a bill that would give reporters access to the prisons and prisoners. The bill would require the corrections department to establish reasonable policies for media access and would allow telephone interviews and uncensored correspondence between reporters and prisoners who are not in solitary confinement.

The Virginia Department of Corrections announced in November it was lifting a four-year ban on news cameras and recording devices in some of the state's prisons. The state's two new "supermax" prisons, the Sussex I and II facilities, and a handful of others were exempt from the policy change.

The cameras and recorders were allowed inside work camps, diversion centers and other low-security facilities because the movement of dangerous inmates to more secure prisons had made them safer, according to corrections officials.

SPJ prisons initiative
Of all requests for assistance to the Society of Professional Journalists, prison access continues to be the number one problem for working journalists. Local SPJ chapters have been vocal in challenging restrictive policies in Michigan, Florida and California.

The national SPJ is organizing all state prison policies on its web site for quick and easy access for all journalists and citizens. The online resource will be for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. This online resource will allow anyone to find the most current information on recording devices, still and video cameras, lap tops, visitation list rules, state prison contacts, and rules governing witnesses to executions.

The society hopes to have the project completed by mid to late April. By early March, 22 states had already submitted reports either electronically or on hard copy. SPJ has been tracking state prison policies through its FOI Alerts, which have been published and posted on since 1995.

Kyle Niederpruem, a 20-year veteran of journalism, is the current national president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Resources for 'Access and Technology: Recovering the Promise'


Watchdogs vs. watchtowers: Journalists seek access to prisons

Freedom-of-information advocates say prison policies, politics and privatization are restricting freedom of the press. 08.02.00

Michigan appeals court again denies ABC's request to interview Kevorkian
Court says corrections officials must be allowed to use their discretion in deciding whether reporters can have personal interviews with inmates. 06.06.01

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