From the Summer 2006 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 20.
Journalists who cover prisons and jails offer these tips for gaining access to correctional facilities:
• Have a specific story in mind. “You can’t go and say, ‘I would like to do a story about the general treatment of inmates in this prison.’ That’s really difficult to do,” said Alan Elsner, a Reuters reporter and book author. “You can go and say, ‘I’d like to look at your hospice program.'”
• Know the media policy. The most successful journalists read the institution’s media policy as a starting point for negotiating access, said Charles Davis, co-chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freedom of Information Committee. SPJ has the media policy for every state prison system is on its Web site www.spj.org.
• Do not be afraid to go to the top. Freelance journalist Mary Beth Pfeiffer, who is writing a book about the mentally ill and their experiences with the criminal justice system, suggests personally appealing to heads of the corrections departments if access is denied. • Be aware of walls inside. Stories of abuse and corruption often do not get told, Elsner said, because prison officials “control basically who you see and who you speak to, and even if they’re not listening to the conversations — and sometimes they are — even if you quote someone anonymously, they know who you’re talking to.”
• Going to court is the last step. Pfeiffer was covering a bench trial in the U.S. District Court in Manhattan earlier this year when the judge and parties in the case toured several correctional facilities, including one housing mentally ill inmates. Pfeiffer asked informally to be a part of the tours, but was denied access. The Reporters Committee found Pfeiffer an attorney to argue that she was entitled to access because the tours were part of an open, civil trial. But the judge again denied her request, citing security concerns and the privacy of those in the institution. — HB