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Journalists challenge prison policies

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From the Winter 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 20.

From the Winter 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 20.

Even as more and more state prison systems move to limit public and press access, journalists continue to fight for greater access to prisons and executions.

Michigan has enacted a more restrictive policy, but that move led one state senator to introduce a bill to ensure greater access. California journalists will get their day in court to argue that they should be able to witness the entire execution process, not just the final stages.

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Restrictive regulations on media access to prisons prompt legislation

The Michigan Department of Corrections is following new proposed rules restricting media interviews with inmates even though the rules have not been officially adopted, according to Associated Press reports. The practice has prompted a state senator to introduce a bill granting greater access.

Corrections spokesman Matt Davis told the AP that the department is requiring reporters to follow the proposed rules even though they are still being discussed within the department. The Michigan Department of Corrections in November heard arguments from media representatives and state officials regarding the proposals.

Under the regulations, media access to Michigan prisoners is severely limited — journalists are granted no greater access than the general public. Journalists are not permitted to bring any recording device, audio or visual, into a jailhouse interview. Reporters may still interview prisoners by telephone, but person-to-person interviews are restricted.

Interviews with the news media are limited by the rules of access applicable to the general public. Among these rules is the requirement that to have access to a particular prisoner, a person must be on that prisoner’s approved visitor list. This list of visitors can only be modified every six months, according to Lisa Mikalonis of the Michigan Press Association.

According to Mikalonis, one-time interviews present problems because it is unlikely that the journalist will be on the prisoner’s approved list. Additionally, she notes that the biggest change, if the proposed regulations remain effective, is the ban on cameras, which would seriously affect television coverage.

Prison officials insist that the changes are necessary to ensure the safety of the staff and state inmates. According to Davis, the proposed changes cannot be attributed to a single event.

The department’s enforcement of the new regulations prompted state Sen. Philip Hoffman (R-Horton) to introduce a bill that would require the Department of Corrections to establish reasonable policies governing media access to state prisons, according to an AP report. The bill would also require officials to allow telephone interviews and uncensored correspondence between reporters and prisoners.

“Limiting media access only serves to create rumor and suspicion,” Hoffman said in a statement explaining his reasons for introducing the bill. “In order to maintain the full trust of the people, we must protect the ability of the media to investigate all sides of a story and then report it fairly and accurately to the public.” (S.B. 942)

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Journalists’ suit over access to complete execution procedure will go to trial

A federal judge in San Francisco ruled in January that a lawsuit filed by a group of reporters over what portion of state executions they are allowed to witness must go to trial.

The Society of Professional Journalists and the California First Amendment Coalition have argued that witnesses need to view the entire proceedings, including the preparation of the prisoner for the lethal injection. Currently, officials only allow witnesses to see the execution after the intravenous tubes have already been inserted.

Prison officials have argued that the safety of guards and other staff would be endangered if they were seen during the long preparation period.

“If their identities are known by inmates, that would endanger the staff,” Karl Mayer of the state attorney general’s office told the Associated Press. However, Mayer acknowledged that no harassment or threats against guards in past executions had been reported.

The journalism organizations filed suit against the state after witnesses to a 1996 execution — the state’s first by lethal injection — were kept from viewing the entire proceeding. Witnesses were told afterward that there had been problems inserting the tubes in the prisoner’s arm. The federal District Court enjoined the state from limiting the viewings, but that decision was overturned by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) in April 1998, which sent the case back to the trial court. (California First Amendment Coalition v. Calderon)