Prisons and executions

Important news events often happen behind bars, and prison inmates themselves may be newsmakers. Reporters often need to visit federal and state prisons to interview inmates and observe prison conditions or executions. But while the public has a limited right of access to the prison system, the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently ruled that the media have no right to insist on interviewing specific inmates.

Although inmates do not lose all their First Amendment rights, prisons may place some limits on their speech in the interests of prison administration and security. Similarly, the Supreme Court has upheld restrictions on journalists' access based on prison officials' arguments that media attention allowed some prisoners to gain "a disproportionate degree of notoriety and influence among their fellow inmates" and that such notoriety engendered "hostility and resentment among inmates who were refused interview privileges." Journalists, the court held, have "no right of access beyond that afforded the general public." (Pell v. Procunier; Saxbe v. Washington Post)

Furthermore, prisoners' rights to talk to the media can be severely restricted if a regulation is implemented to further a legitimate safety or security interest, and courts are highly deferential to prisons in determining how rules serve those interests.

But even though media access may not be constitutionally guaranteed, state law or prison policy may allow reporters to interview specific inmates. Before assuming your state does not allow access, call the state department of corrections (or the Bureau of Prisons for access to a federal facility) to find the specific requirements for and limitations on interviews and visits. Policies vary widely from state to state, and corrections officials usually have considerable latitude in deciding whether a particular reporter may interview a particular inmate. Some states have regulations that are very specific regarding who is a journalist and what kind of access journalists can get, while others leave it to the discretion of the prison warden.

If officials refuse an interview request, reporters still may be able to communicate with inmates by having their names added to the list of persons who may call, visit or write to a specific inmate. Regulations vary on how large the list can be and how long it may take to be added to it.

Prisons may also elect to offer no special access at all. For example, Arizona excludes all visitors except lawyers, family and friends. California rules specifically ban face-to-face interviews between prisoners and the news media. Pennsylvania also grants no special access right to members of the media; reporters must register as "social visitors" and are subject to the same restrictions that apply to the general public.

Furthermore, in many states prison officials may legally eavesdrop on conversations between inmates and reporters and read inmates' mail.

Access may also depend on the status of the inmate a reporter wishes to see. It may be difficult to contact inmates who have been placed in administrative or disciplinary segregation, though in federal prisons even inmates in special segregation can usually receive visitors.

Access to "death row" inmates may also be governed by unique rules. For example, federal regulations bar press access to an inmate within seven days before his or her scheduled execution, except by permission of the prisoner and the warden of the facility.