Senate Passes Prison Media Access Bill

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: August 29, 2012
Contacts: Carlos Alcalá, Communications Director (916) 319-2013 or (916) 698-0243 cell
Emily Harris, Californians United for a Responsible Budget, (510) 435-1176

Senate Passes Prison Media Access Bill

Sacramento – The California Senate passed AB 1270 by Assemblymember Tom Ammiano today, sending the bill on prison media openness to Governor Jerry Brown for his signature. The bill would restore the conditions that existed before 1996, the year that state corrections officials cut down on reporters’ ability to report directly on prison circumstances.

“We’re not just worried about reporters,” Ammiano said. “The lack of good information is also a danger to the prisoners, the employees and the public at large. It was under these closed-door conditions that prison health conditions deteriorated to the point that the courts stepped in. When it comes to prisons, what we don’t know can really hurt us.”

“California’s prisons are notoriously off-limits to the kind of scrutiny that is routine for most public agencies,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in a recent editorial. The bill deserves the Governor’s signature, The Times wrote.

Under current procedures used by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, journalists cannot request interviews with a particular prisoner to investigate conditions in the taxpayer funded facilities. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to investigate any events, such as the 2011 hunger strike in prisons.

Moreover, though, reporters may interview people in prisons who are selected by prison officials, there is no way to conduct follow-up interviews to those encounters, nor is there a way to check whether a prisoner has suffered any repercussions as a result of interviews.

“I hope that Governor Brown understands that lifting the media ban from our prisons can help victims like myself know what’s going on behind prison walls, improve conditions of confinement and save tax payers money. We need to let the light in,” said Shirley Wilson from the Youth Justice Coalition in Los Angeles. Wilson’s son was murdered and she now volunteers with youth who are at risk of being locked up.

“The public has the right to know how our tax dollars are being spent inside prisons,” said Jerry Elster, an organizer with All of Us or None. “If the state officials have nothing to hide then what’s the problem with reporters having more access to people in prison?”

“With passage of AB 1270 legislators have voted for transparent and accountable reporting of the state’s 32 prisons and the more than 130 prisoners locked inside their walls,” said Nancy Mullane, a prize-winning reporter and author on prisons. “With the governor’s signature, no longer will professional, credentialed, hard-working journalists be forced to interview whichever inmate the prison authorities make available to them. For the first time in more than two decades, journalists will be permitted by law to request an interview with an inmate by name.”

Following passage, the Governor has until September 30 to sign the measure.

The bill is supported by the California Catholic Conference, the American Civil Liberties Union, the California Newspaper Publisher Association, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, California Correctional Peace Officers Association and more than 20 other groups. It is sponsored by Californians United for a Responsible Budget, the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, the Center for Young Women’s Development, the Friends Committee on Legislation of California and the Youth Justice Coalition.

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California Bill Would Increase Media Access to Prisoners

From the website of SolitaryWatch:
Jan. 6th 2012
by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway

The nation’s supermax prisons and solitary confinement units are virtual black sites, off-limits and therefore invisible to both the public and the press. While laws vary from state to state, the media are for the most part barred from touring these facilities, and forbidden to conduct in-person interviews with prisoners being held in solitary confinement. These rules are made by the prisons themselves, in the name of safety and security, and with few exceptions the courts have acquiesced, ruling that the freedom of the press stops at the prison gate.

A bill introduced in the California State Assembly seeks to challenge the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations ban on interviewing prisoners in its notorious Security Housing Units (SHUs) and ease restrictions on interviews with other prisoners. Assembly Bill 1270 was introduced by Assemblymember Tom Ammiano of San Francisco. Ammiano chairs the Public Safety Committee, and held hearings on California’s SHUs in August 2011, following the historic inmate hunger strike that began at Pelican Bay State Prison in July.

According to a fact sheet released by Ammiano’s office, AB 1270 seeks to restore the media’s ability to conduct pre-arranged in-person interviews with specific prison inmates…It would allow the media to provide more balanced information about our prison systems to keep the public informed and our institutions both transparent and accountable.” (The full fact sheet appears at the end of this post.)

The fact sheet notes: “Media is even more restricted access to the most controversial correctional facilities such as the secure housing units (SHUs). It goes on to describe the extreme isolation of the SHUs, and mentions findings that link solitary confinement to mental illness and suicide.

According to the bill, the interviews would take place “under the discretion of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation,” which could choose, for safety reasons, to deny a media request to interview a particular inmate. However, “Any responses denying a request must be accompanied by a written explanation for the request denial.” According to the text of the bill, it would also “forbid retaliation against an inmate for participating in a visit by, or communicating with, a representative of the news media.”

Earlier this week, the bill was referred to the Committee on Public Safety, which will decide whether it goes any further.