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Attorney general demands testimony, records on prison access

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  1. Newsgathering
Attorney general demands testimony, records on prison access 05/03/99

Attorney general demands testimony, records on prison access


CALIFORNIA–A prison inmate’s lawsuit concerning media access to prisoners has led to the targeting of San Francisco freelance reporter Peter Sussman by the state attorney general. The attorney general’s office first subpoenaed Sussman in mid-January and demanded nine years’ worth of notes, letters, e-mail, tapes, and computer records pertaining to Sussman’s coverage of the issue of media access to inmates, and of his lobbying efforts for improved access.

Sussman said that his attorney finally reached a settlement with the attorney general’s office on April 29 that quashed all the subpoenas targeting his information and sources.

Sussman’s refusal to turn over all of the requested documents in early April led Deputy Attorney General Jane Catherine Malich to ask the federal District Court in San Francisco for permission to subpoena the online community “The Well” for e-mail and discussion group postings on the subject of media access to prisoners to “help narrow the issues which the court must decide at the anticipated motion to compel production of documents from Mr. Sussman.” That subpoena was also quashed as part of the settlement.

After receiving the original subpoena in January and being denied relief from additional subpoenas by a state trial judge in March, Sussman appeared at depositions and responded to questions about notes, articles, correspondence, and about a pending contract for publication with Harper’s magazine on the prison access issue. Sussman spent a total of 14 hours in depositions. He refused, however, to turn over any previously unpublished materials.

The attorney general’s office wants Sussman’s newsgathering materials to help the California Corrections Department defend against a lawsuit filed by a state prison inmate over treatment by prison officials that was related to media access to prisoners and the ability of prisoners to contact members of the media.

The underlying lawsuit was filed by an inmate at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo in August 1996. The inmate, Robert J. “Boston” Woodard, claims he was fired from his position as editor of the prison newspaper and confined to his cell for five days for writing a letter to a journalist and inviting that journalist to interview him about a rock band he had formed. Woodard’s lawsuit is scheduled for trial in August. (Woodard v. Duncan; Media Counsel: David Durant, Oakland)