Skip to content

Openness behind bars

Post categories

  1. Newsgathering
From the Summer 2006 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 19. Tim Ryan was a sergeant at…

From the Summer 2006 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 19.

Tim Ryan was a sergeant at the Alameda County Jail in California in the 1970s under Sheriff Thomas Houchins. When a local television station wanted access to the jail after an inmate killed himself, Houchins said no.

KQED fought the sheriff all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 1978 that reporters have no special right of access to jails.

Ryan, now the chief of corrections for Orange County Florida, runs a very different institution than his old boss did.

On an average day in 2005, Ryan had more than 3,700 inmates and 1,700 employees under his watch in the 22nd largest jail in the country. It is also the jail that let reporters from ABC News “Nightline” — and their cameras, lights and sound equipment — follow two of its corrections officers for a day. The June 9 piece, “Customer Service in Hell,” called Orange County one of the most progressive jails in the country.

There are few restrictions on media access, though reporters and inmates are barred from discussing conditions inside the jail.

“We need to be cautious about security and privacy issues, but we also have to recognize that some of the folks in here are pretty good con artists and they would use this to their advantages in their cases,” Ryan said. “They tend to want to abuse what we would say is a good openness policy — that something evil is being done to them along the way.”

Other than that ban, access is allowed to inmates who consent to a face-to-face interview. TV and still cameras are allowed, along with tape recorders and microphones. The jail also periodically has an open house for the media, a brochure for reporters and an extensive Web site.

Ryan said the historical closure of correctional institutions to the public built unnecessary barriers in the system that have only recently begun to change. Some corrections officials began to think, “if we could open our doors to the public we may not have as many concerns on the litigious side,” Ryan said. “You have this total prohibition, we don’t have to do zip, but at times it’s an advantage for the community to see we aren’t doing so bad.”

In the last decade, Ryan said, concerns about the news media being inside correctional institutions have decreased. Prosecutors, instead of being worried about Miranda violations during media interviews, now use what defendants say in newspapers and on camera against them at trial.

“Nightline” chose the Orange County Jail because Ryan is on the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons and would let the journalists inside on short notice with cameras and sound equipment, said Ted Gerstein, who helped report the story. Ryan barred the journalists from showing prisoners’ faces or talking with the inmates.

“I would have liked to been able to talk to some of inmates,” he said. “That would have been a nice element of it but the administrator just said that was against policy and left it at that.”

The “Nightline” crew met correctional officer Marlene Baker at her home around 5 a.m., interviewed her in her car on the way to work, and then followed her throughout her shift in the a mental health unit of the female detention center, normally off- limits to reporters. After Baker’s shift ended, the crew followed another corrections officer, Daniel Diramos, until about 11 p.m.

“Nightline” returned the next day for a few hours, spending about 20 hours total at the jail, said spokesman Allen Moore. — HB