Everything online journalists need to protect their legal rights. This free resource culls from all Reporters Committee resources and includes exclusive content on digital media law issues.
The public has a limited right of access to the prison system, and the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently ruled that the media have no right beyond that. These restrictions are justified by prison administration and security interests, as well as concerns about the effects of media attention on relationships among inmates.
Despite the lack of a constitutional guarantee of access, state law or prison policy may allow members of the media inside to interview inmates. These policies vary widely by state; the Society of Professional Journalists lists the policy for each one on its web site, though locating them is tricky. (The sites cannot be found by typing “prison” in the search box. However, once you find the site for one state, links for each additional state are listed on the right-hand side of the screen. Thus, you can link to your state’s policy by starting from Georgia’s, for example.) It is always a good idea to make sure you have the most up-to-date information through a phone call to the department of corrections, phone numbers for which are also included on the SPJ site. Note that media access policies may also vary among institutions within the same state.
Unfortunately, online publishers may have more difficulty getting in than traditional members of the media. Some states determine media access based on an author’s medium of publication. For example, Indiana’s special provisions for news media access do not apply to “non-news media,” including “independent film makers, writers for non-news magazines and other[s].” Moreover, the regulation that governs federal prisoners’ contact with the media defines representatives of such as “persons whose principal employment is to gather or report news for ... a radio or television news program of a station holding a Federal Communications license.” The U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta (11th Cir.) upheld the constitutionality of the regulation in 1986 in a case in which federal prison officials denied an independent television producer access to a maximum security prison.
If you find that a particular policy or regulation would preclude your access, don’t give up. Follow the procedure required for members of the media in your state (or the Bureau of Prisons' procedure for access to a federal facility). If your request is denied, try personally appealing to the head of the department, emphasizing to him or her your function -- gathering and disseminating information to the public -- over your lack of credentials or other status symbols of the traditional media.