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California lawmakers pushing media access to prisoners

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California lawmakers pushing media access to prisoners

  • Despite a failure to obtain executive approval in the past, California lawmakers are once again pushing a bill that will grant journalists better access to prison inmates.

Feb. 10, 2004 — Two California lawmakers are reintroducing legislation to allow more media access to inmates, following state Senate committee hearings on allegations of prisoner abuse, corruption and coverups among prison officials.

Legislators are pushing for more scrutiny of the state’s $5.3 billion prison system by rescinding strict rules that limit journalists’ ability to interview prisoners. Former Govs. Pete Wilson, a Republican, and Gray Davis, a Democrat, each vetoed past attempts by the legislature to create greater oversight.

However, lawmakers are hopeful Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will sign this year’s legislation, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. Schwarzenegger campaigned on a theme of providing more openness in government affairs.

According to the California Newspaper Publishers Association, the Senate hearings focused on problems at several prisons, including Folsom State Prison in Represa, where whistleblowers said an investigation into a 2002 riot had been covered up. In January, the U.S. District Court in San Francisco released a report about Pelican Bay State Prison guards who committed perjury during a federal trial on inmate abuse.

The move to increase media access was sponsored by Sen. Gloria Romero (D-San Francisco) and Assemblyman Mark Leno (D- San Francisco), who told the Chronicle that the need for more oversight of the state’s corrections department is evident.

“This is simply about open government — this is a troubled agency, and it’s a $5-billion-a-year agency,” Romero told the Chronicle on Feb. 3. “It needs some sunshine.”

Romero, who co-chaired the recent Senate hearings, introduced her bill last week, while Leno, the chairman of the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee, plans to introduce his bill later this week.

Schwarzenegger has proposed eliminating a state agency that serves as an independent watchdog of California’s prison system. The state currently has a $15 billion budget deficit this year.

Both bills are similar to legislation sponsored by former Assemblywoman Carole Migden (D- San Francisco) in 1999 and 2000. Her bills were supported by the Society of Professional Journalists and garnered bipartisan approval before Davis vetoed each measure.

Prison rules created by Wilson in 1996 have made it difficult for reporters to set up interviews with specific inmates. Regulations prohibit journalists from using notebooks or recording devices during interviews, and it often takes months to organize a meeting of any kind.

Romero’s bill would overturn those rules, allowing journalists to meet face-to-face with specific inmates, provide more flexibility in the timing of interviews, and allow notebooks or recording devices.

Both Davis and Wilson said they vetoed the bills, in part, because they didn’t want inmates to become celebrities. According to the Chronicle, crime victims groups have expressed similar concerns.

(S.B. 1164) MG

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© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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