More states move to limit access to prisoners

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From the Fall 1999 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 37.

Journalists in a number of states — Florida, Michigan, California and Texas — have seen setbacks recently in access to prisons.

The actions have prompted press organizations nationwide to protest what many say is an attempt to silence prison inmates and block public scrutiny of prison operations.


Citing concern for public safety and increasing requests for interviews with “celebrity inmates,” prison officials in Florida and Michigan are proposing changes that would curtail media access to inmates in state prisons.

Florida and Michigan’s proposed changes regarding prison access come on the heels of California’s recent refusal to open up its prisons to the media. In early September, California Gov. Gray Davis vetoed legislation that would have allowed reporters to conduct and record face-to-face interviews with prisoners of their choice and said that such access was more than what is granted to family members and creates celebrity criminals.

And in June, Texas — which is among three states identified in a Society of Professional Journalists survey released last Summer as having the most lenient access policies — proposed restricting access to only those identified by prison officials as “legitimate” media. State officials complained that they were being bombarded by the international press and special interest groups with requests to interview death row inmates, particularly leading up to the execution of Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman executed in the state.

Before abandoning the effort, Texas also proposed granting access only to “card-carrying journalists,” presumably those from established media organizations, who agreed not to publish or broadcast stories critical of the state’s death penalty stance.

“We have always been opened to the Texas media, but we were just overwhelmed with requests from the other media to tour, interview, and even gawk, at our prison system,” said Larry Todd, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “The foreign media folks especially tend to think of us as a tourist attraction.”

Since the 1970s, prisons have had broad discretion in determining media access. The U.S. Supreme Court in two landmark prison access cases, Pell v. Procunier and Saxbe v. Washington Post Co., concluded that the First Amendment did not guarantee the press the right to gather information. The Court also held that journalists have no more rights than the general public and that officials could ban interviews with certain inmates to protect law enforcement interests and personal privacy.

Few prisons, including the two involved in the landmark prison access cases, have adopted the Court’s position in its entirety, choosing to grant access at will, said Peter Y. Sussman, a California freelance journalist and author who has written extensively about media access to prisons.

“The rulings were based on circumstances at the time,” Sussman said. “Officials then were concerned about the ‘big wheel’ effect — which was that they believed prisoners who got publicity became a big wheel in the eyes of the prison community and caused the destabilization of the prison environment.”

Prison officials are making a similar argument. Many complain that increased media interest in death row inmates and other notorious criminals creates “celebrity criminals,” which Gov. Davis said results in additional pain for victims and their families. Officials also claim that cele┬Čbrity inmates are not apt to be remorseful, and resist rehabilitation, during incarceration.

But media advocates say such abuses involving celebrity inmates are rare. They contend that the proposed changes are designed to inhibit the media’s ability to cover prisons effectively by making it more difficult for inmates to contact and meet freely with reporters.

“The profile on this issue has risen considerably in the last few years,” said Sussman. Prior to a 1995 change in California’s rules, Sussman said reporters only had to request permission to interview any one of the state inmates. If the inmate agreed, then arrangements were made for the reporter and crew to enter the prison and conduct the interview.

But if a reporter now wants to interview an inmate, it must be done by telephone, or the reporter must have his or her name placed on the prisoner’s visitor list. Prison telephones usually are monitored, and conversations are interrupted intermittently by warnings that the person is an inmate. And getting on a prisoner’s visitor list can take several weeks, even months, Sussman said.

Much like those in California, the changes proposed in Florida and Michigan would allow journalists to “visit” with specific inmates who put in a request. That would require prisoners to place the journalist’s name in advance on the visitor list, a move that could result in numerous and extended delays.

As visitors, reporters are prohibited from having pens, pencils, cameras, or recording devices, effectively blocking print reporters, television and radio broadcasters, as well as news photographers, from capturing pictures or comments.

Florida officials admit that the proposals to restrict media access were prompted, in part, by the publicity surrounding “celebrity inmates,” such as Danny Rolling, the man convicted of killing University of Florida college students.

“With criminals committing notorious crimes, with the media eager to publicize them, and with more attention being given to the plight and rights of victims, we are obliged to review our policies,” wrote Michael W. Moore, Florida’s Secretary of Corrections, in a press release.

Moore claimed that Gov. Jeb Bush was moved to reconsider state prison policies “that allow virtual unfettered access” to prisoners after a Tennessee woman complained by e-mail about an interview with Rolling that appeared on Fox Files, a news magazine show.

Bill Hirschman, a Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel reporter, said Moore apparently has been considering these restrictions for some time.

In a release published on the state’s website, Moore surveyed the inmate interview policies of 10 states, including New York, California, and Texas, as well as that of the federal prison system. He concluded that Florida’s practice of liberal access “was expansive compared to many other states.”

But Hirschman said journalists around the state are questioning the timing of Moore’s proposals. The Department of Corrections recently came under fire for the July 17 beating death of death row inmate Frank Valdes and has been scrutinized by the media following the escape of six convicted murderers from a Belle Glade facility .

In Michigan, prison officials insist that the changes are necessary to ensure the safety of the staff and 46,000 state inmates. “Everything bad that happens, generally happens during movement of the prisoner,” Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Matt Davis said. “What we’ve done is try to eliminate unnecessary movement.”

But Mark Gribben, director of newspaper affairs for the Michigan Press Association, said that the prison has not had one safety issue in recent years that warrants such extreme measures.

Under Michigan’s proposed rules, all members of the media will have no special right of access greater than that of the general public.

“Some editorial people would define this as narrowing access; we would argue that it is opening up the process,” said Davis. “We’re no longer going to lower the public below the Fourth Estate.”

Davis said the changes, which have been studied for more than two years, cannot be attributed to a single event. However, Davis noted, the department did deviate from its policies to accommodate media requests to interview Dr. Jack Kervorkian, the doctor convicted of helping a terminally ill woman commit suicide.

Unlike other inmates who are granted only 20 phone listings each year and allowed to change them twice a year, Kervorkian was allowed to change his list of phone numbers as many times as requested by his lawyers. “The point is we went over and above what we do for other prisoners,” Davis said.

Davis said that under the proposed rules, the prison would grant an interview only if there is a “direct and tangible positive effect on the state’s criminal justice system.”

“This sets clearer parameters,” said Davis. “Before we had some ambiguity.”

“What is truly disturbing to us is that, unless the story is of a public service or promotes some positive aspect of the prison system, they will turn down a request for an interview,” said Gribben.

Both states must hold public hearings on the proposed rules before they are adopted. The hearings are set for November.