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Officials plan to limit media's access to inmates

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    NMU         MASSACHUSETTS         Newsgathering         Jun 6, 2002    

Officials plan to limit media’s access to inmates

  • Massachusetts prison officials said new restrictions, which would deny reporters confidential interviews and limit recording privileges, protect victims’ privacy and media representatives’ safety.

The Massachusetts Department of Corrections seeks to restrict the media’s access to inmates by banning cameras and tape recorders at medium- and maximum-security prisons, requiring official supervision of all interviews and prohibiting interviews with inmates held in segregation.

Although officials cite journalists’ safety and victims’ privacy as justification for restricting access to the most dangerous inmates, some lawyers think the regulations are the product of a government agency trying to withhold information from the public. Peter Constanza, a lawyer with the Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, told The Boston Globe that press restrictions like Massachusetts prison system’s so-called “security” measures are becoming all too popular.

“This is a typical move made by any government entity that doesn’t want people outside to see what’s going on,” Constanza said.

Also the product of the prison system’s fiscal concerns, the regulations have already been approved by officials and will be finalized after a mandatory public hearing on June 14, according to prison spokesman Justin Latini. He said many of the new restrictions mirror other states’ recent moves to cinch-off interaction between inmates and the media.

Since 1996, when California banned most face-to-face prisoner interviews, Virginia, Florida and Michigan have enacted new — tougher — access codes. For example, cameras are now banned in Michigan prisons and reporters have restricted hours in which to conduct inmate interviews.

Massachusetts’ proposed ban on unsupervised interviewing has the potential to keep inmates from speaking candidly with representatives of the media, especially about corruption within the prison system, opponents of the ban say. But state prison officials say this practice is nothing new, adding that it imposed reporter supervision as an informal policy for years.

Civil libertarians, legislators and lawyers are alarmed by the complete barring of access to inmates in top security, otherwise known as segregation. Inmates are typically placed in segregation for assaulting guards or fellow prisoners.

John Reinstein, a lawyer for the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union, called the blanket ban on access to segregated inmates “extraordinary” in an interview with The Boston Globe .

“If there is anyone that needs a window to the outside world, it’s prisoners in the most severe category of confinement,” Reinstein said.

Inmates are typically in confinement for six months, but in certain cases, segregation has lasted up to 10 years.

The system justifies the restriction as a move to keep reporters safe by keeping them away from the most dangerous inmates. But other stipulations, like the ban on recording devices, would include all but seven of the state’s prisons — those with the very minimum level of security. Filming for use in documentaries may still be permitted in high-security buildings, and television stations will be allowed in annually to get footage.

Prohibiting filming and taping not only puts journalists at the risk of not being able to defend an interview’s accuracy, but would limit the audience of the media produced, since a growing number of people use televised or electronic media.

Advocates of the restrictions say some video coverage violates victim privacy by having the potential to reexpose them to the criminal or have to relive the crime by seeing it in the media. Philip Silva, legal counsel for the Massachusetts prison system, said he feels the changes are based upon “legitimate security concerns” in a time when television shows “make celebrities of criminals.”

CL

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