Journalists and watchdog groups battle increasingly secretive state prisons for access to inmates
From the Spring 2004 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 24.
After receiving tips from various advocacy groups concerned about the treatment of inmates in New York state prisons, Albany Times-Union reporter Paul Grondahl decided in 2000 to find out what was really going on inside some of the state’s penitentiaries.
What he discovered was that the New York Department of Correctional Services “threw up every obstacle imaginable” to prevent him from interviewing prisoners or gaining access to “The Box,” a 23-hour confinement facility that prison watchdog groups claim constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
Grondahl was prohibited from interviewing inmates incarcerated in The Box, was told that inmates would lie to him or exaggerate conditions, and had mail correspondence with inmates confiscated.
Through enterprise reporting and persistence, however, Grondahl was able to gather enough information to assemble two series of stories for the Times-Union: “Lockdown,” emphasizing the prevalence of high-tech cells that minimize human contact with inmates; and “The New Asylum,” focusing on the treatment of mentally ill prisoners and how they survived after prison.
With a prison population of more than two million, the U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country in the world — at a current cost to tax-payers that exceeds $50 billion. According to Human Rights Watch, a nonprofit watchdog organization, at least one in six of those prisoners is mentally ill, and most are not receiving the treatment they need.
Yet despite those statistics, state correction services and criminal justice boards nationwide have been tightening media restrictions and attempting to evade independent scrutiny. Prisoners today are seemingly no longer just locked up; publicly-funded prison officials are actually throwing away the keys.
“It was difficult to get access again, and very frustrating,” Grondahl said of his efforts to report on his second series of articles. “The public pays the salaries for these PR people, and they are blocking a legitimate public issue.”
Grondahl’s first series, published in 2000, included pieces that explored the psychological effects of the lockdown units where some inmates have served more than 15 years. They are deprived of human interaction, exercise, fresh air and programs. Showers in the cells automatically turn on for a few minutes a day. Food is slid into the cells through slots in the metal doors. An electronic door in the back of the cell releases inmates onto a caged balcony one hour per day for “recreation” time.
When he wasn’t given access to prisoners in The Box at maximum security prisons like Upstate Correctional Facility in Malone, N.Y., Grondahl devised alternative methods of access. Occasionally, good behavior could shorten stays in The Box, and inmates would be granted phone privileges with the ability to give interviews. When that didn’t suffice, Grondahl contacted families through prison family support groups. He used his correspondence with them to add to his stories and to get his name on inmate visi tor lists.
“A few times when I went to sign in at the prison, they didn’t ask if I was a reporter,” he said. “I just told them that I knew the family.”
With the prisoners shackled behind bulletproof glass, Grondahl surreptitiously took notes with scratch paper and a pencil. Recording devices are permitted in New York State prisons only in public visiting areas. Inmates in disciplinary lockdown are not authorized to have visits there. For a physical description of the lockdown units, Grondahl toured the cell blocks in a prison under construction and sat in one of the new cells.
After Sept. 11, 2001, security at prisons in the U.S. got even tighter. The Department of Correctional Services now claims that it is a “security risk” to allow anyone inside the lockdown areas, Grondahl said.
“There are a lot of rules meant to keep the press at bay. They try to intimidate us,” he said.
One form of intimidation DOCS and Commissioner Glenn Goord have recently employed is banning reporters and watchdog groups from entering state prisons. In March, the Correctional Association of New York, the state’s only independent prison watchdog group, filed suit against Goord for what it called, “a broad range of retaliatory measures” enacted against its staff for releasing the highly critical report, “Lockdown New York: Disciplinary Confinement in New York State Prisons.”
Among those retaliatory measures were restricted access to prisons, inmates and correction officers.
In 1846, the New York legislature granted the association the authority to inspect prisons and report its findings and recommendations to policymakers and the public. Many of the observations in its most recent report, published in October as part of the association’s Prison Visiting Project, concurred with Grondahl’s research on the severe psychological disorders displayed by inmates in lockdown.
In the report’s executive summary, the association said: “The findings from Correctional Association visits to nearly every disciplinary housing unit in New York — 49 visits to 26 lockdown units — reveal a disturbing picture characterized by emotional and physical distress, a reliance on warehousing instead of treatment, high rates of mental illness, suicide and self-mutilation, low staff moral and unsafe working conditions for prison guards and administrative staff.”
A DOCS press release later that month discredited the report as “biased and inaccurate,” while Goord referred to the Correctional Association as “an inmate lobbying group.”
Bob Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association, said he “had no choice” but to file a lawsuit when Goord “made a unilateral decision to shut down a good, working relationship” between the two groups.
“These restrictions thwart the central statutory responsibility of the Association — to conduct vital prison visiting work — by limiting how and with whom researchers may conduct visits, to whom they can speak during visits, and generally restricting researchers from key areas of the prison,” Gangi said, in a statement on the association’s Web site.
Ted Conover, a journalist and author of the award-winning 2000 book “Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing,” had similar difficulties getting access to New York’s publicly funded prison system. After the DOCS denied his request to shadow a recruit at the New York State Corrections Academy, Conover applied for a job as an officer — under his own name, although he left off his application that he has worked as a journalist — and later wrote about his year-long experience at Sing Sing, a maximum security facility in upstate New York.
“The CA (Correctional Association) and DOCS are very polarized, which I ascribe mainly to paranoia and hypersensitivity among the top managers,” he said, in an e-mail interview. “The CA’s criticisms strike me as measured and fair. No other prison system I have come into contact with has such a strong negative reaction to scrutiny of any kind. This attitude does not serve the public interest.”
While the Correctional Association is battling in New York, California legislators are fighting press restrictions by making a fourth attempt to pass legislation that will allow greater media access to prisons.
Prison rules created in 1996 by former Gov. Pete Wilson 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. The latest bills, introduced in February by state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), are similar to three past pieces of legislation that garnered bipartisan approval yet were all vetoed.
On March 23, both bills were passed by committees in the Assembly and the Senate; the bills were scheduled for hearings throughout April.
Past attempts to create greater oversight of the $5.3 billion California prison system were vetoed by Wilson, a Republican, and Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat. According to Peter Sussman, a former president of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California chapter who has written extensively about media access to prisoners, the same challenge exists for today’s legislators: gaining the governor’s signature.
Sussman expressed optimism that Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will sign the bill.
“He recognizes that what he needs most is openness in all agencies of government, especially one as impenetrable and secretive as the CDC [California Department of Corrections],” Sussman said, noting that the SPJ and the California Newspaper Publishers Association both support the legislation.
“He did campaign on sunshine issues,” Sussman added, “and we need to correct serious abuses that have occurred.”
The reintroduction of the legislation followed state Senate committee hearings on allegations of prisoner abuse, corruption and coverups among prison officials. The hearings, according to the California Newspaper Publishers Association, 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.
“We have heard evidence that indicates we need greater legislative oversight of the Department of Corrections,” Romero said. “Allowing the media access to inmates and correctional facilities will further our efforts to bring sunshine and accountability to the department’s actions.”
Sussman concurred. “The legislature and governor are in the dark about prisons,” he said. “At least some of that ignorance may not have been necessary, and it could have been lessened by allowing the media access to prisons.”
If adopted, the new legislation would overturn Wilson’s restrictions. Journalists would be permitted to prearrange in-person interviews, and would be allowed to use notebooks and recording devices. The department would also have to allow confidential correspondence between prisoners and the media unless “to do so would pose an immediate and direct threat to the security of the institution or the safety of the public,” the bill says.
The legislation also redefines ” ‘representative of the news media’ to include, but not be limited to, a journalist who works for or is under contract to a newspaper, magazine, wire service, book publisher, or radio or television program, or station who, through press passes issued by a governmental or police agency, or through similar convincing means, can demonstrate that he or she is a bona fide journalist engaged in the gathering of information for distribution to the public.”
That definition would broaden the current interpretation, which limits members of the “media” to include full-time reporters for daily newspapers, radio or television programs, and “recognized” general-coverage news magazines.
Such a narrow definition excludes several legitimate members of the media, a reality true-crime book author Suzy Spencer of Austin, Texas, knows well.
Spencer has penned three true-crime books, including “Breaking Point,” the story of Andrea Yates, whose insanity plea was rejected when she was convicted in the June 2001 murder of her five children. Spencer’s 1999 book “Wasted” was a New York Times best-seller.
Yet in her efforts to research her fourth book, Spencer was met with resistance from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which informed her that its new media guidelines prohibit interviews between inmates and book authors because it is “difficult to verify an author’s credentials.” While Spencer was able to offer credentials and a letter from her publisher, St. Martin’s Press, she was told in an e-mail message by public information officer Michelle Lyons that no exceptions would be made.
Lyons also wrote that the department no longer processes interview requests from book authors because of a lack of staff to monitor interviews, and authors’ desire to spend more than the one-hour allotment for media interviews.
For previous books, Spencer had been permitted to interview the subjects of her books several times without supervision. “They told me I was allowed an hour, but that I should stay as much as I wanted,” she said. “Usually, I would stay from three to four hours.”
Spencer is currently writing about the 1999 murder of former TV executive and millionaire Steven Beard Jr., whose wife, Celeste Beard Johnson, is serving two life sentences for capital murder. Tracy Tarlton, who allegedly had an affair with Beard Johnson, is serving a 20-year sentence in exchange for testifying against her. Spencer was able to secure an interview with Tarlton in July, but was told in November that she would not be allowed a second interview because only writers with a daily, weekly or monthly deadline qualify as news media.
After numerous unsuccessful attempts to convince the TDCJ to let her in — she wrote letters to the state attorney general’s office, a state representative and a state senator — Spencer sought the help of the American Civil Liberties Union. Several newspaper editorials were also written in Texas, urging the TDCJ to change its policy. The editorials, combined with the ACLU’s threat of a lawsuit, are what Spencer says finally got her back into the Gatesville Unit female prison.
On Feb. 10, she was allowed separate interviews with both women, each monitored.
“I got in for an hour interview, timed literally to the minute,” Spencer said.
Requests for a second interview with Beard Johnson were again denied by the TDCJ. In March, Spencer was sent pages of TDCJ media policy that stated journalists were only allowed one interview with an inmate unless granted special permission by the department. Spencer said Lyons told her that the policy had been around for years, but it was the first Spencer had ever heard of it.
The pages were not included in an open records request Spencer filed in December for prison media policies. Eventually, she was granted her second one-hour supervised interview with Beard Johnson, but said she doubts she will get much more help as she attempts to finish her book.
On April 3, the Houston Chronicle reported that inmate and media correspondence, deemed confidential for 21 years, will be subject to inspection by prison officials.
“It makes me wonder what they are trying to hide now that they are changing all of this,” Spencer said.
Spencer said the new restrictions placed on authors have severely handicapped her ability to write about matters of public importance, and believes her latest book will be her last. “I’m too exhausted from the fight,” she said.
Sussman said he can understand journalists’ frustrations. However, he noted, it is a societal imperative for the public to understand how people end up in prison, as well as what happens to them once they are locked away.
“We need to always remember,” he said, “that what happens in prison affects all of us when they get out.”