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Access behind bars

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Although media access to federal and state prisons and the inmates they house may not be constitutionally guaranteed, state law…

Although media access to federal and state prisons and the inmates they house may not be constitutionally guaranteed, state law or prison policy may allow members of the news media inside to interview inmates.

Policies vary widely from state to state, and corrections officials usually have considerable latitude in deciding whether a particular reporter may interview a particular inmate. Some states have regulations that are very specific regarding the type of access journalists can get, while others leave it to the discretion of the prison warden.

The Society of Professional Journalists has compiled a comprehensive online database that lists the policy for each state and includes other useful information in a summary format. It is located at www.spj.org/prisonaccess.asp.

In addition to Maryland, six other states — Alaska, Connecticut, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts and West Virginia — have media policies that address crime victims. Most require that victims be notified when a journalist’s request to interview a particular prisoner is approved. Three states, Alaska, Louisiana and West Virginia, consider a victim’s wishes regarding an inmate’s appearance in the media when evaluating such requests.

If officials refuse an interview request, reporters still may be able to communicate with inmates by having their names added to the list of people who may call, visit or write to a specific inmate. Regulations vary on how large the list can be and how long it may take to be added to it.

Prisons also may elect to offer no special access at all. For example, rules in Idaho, Iowa and Kansas specifically ban face-to-face interviews between prisoners and members of the news media barring approval by the department’s director. South Carolina’s policy states that such interviews are prohibited under any circumstance.

In many states, media access is based on an author’s medium of publication. For example, Indiana’s special provisions for media access define news media as “any agency that gathers and reports news for a general circulation newspaper, news magazine, national or international news service, or radio or television news program holding a Federal Communication Commission license,” meaning that online content providers likely are not eligible for access.

And the regulation that governs federal prisoners’ contact with the media defines representatives of such in nearly identical terms. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta (11th Cir.) upheld the constitutionality of the regulation in Jersawitz v. Hanberry, a 1986 case in which federal prison officials denied an independent television producer access to a maximum security prison.

Access also may depend on the status of the inmate a reporter wishes to see. It may be difficult to contact inmates who have been placed in administrative or disciplinary segregation or those who are on death row or juvenile offenders.

After identifying your state’s specific requirements for and limitations on inmate interviews and prison visits, 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 (or the Bureau of Prisons for access to a federal facility), phone numbers for which also are included on the SPJ site. Note that media access policies also may vary among correctional facilities within the same state.