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Reporters Committee urges governor to allow greater access to prisons

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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press today urged California Governor Gray Davis to sign AB 2101, a bill…

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press today urged California Governor Gray Davis to sign AB 2101, a bill passed by the California legislature that would permit journalists greater access to prison inmates. The Reporters Committee noted that allowing media access to prisons would ease public concerns about prison scandals.

Notably, the bill was passed last week by the state senate in a bipartisan 25-4 vote. Such overwhelming support by elected officials reflects the public’s growing disdain for government secrecy. The bill has already passed the assembly. Governor Davis, however, has expressed displeasure with the bill. The Reporters Committee encouraged Davis to consider the public’s interest in permitting journalist to obtain and record timely and truthful information about the operations of California prisons.

“Journalists had access to prisoners for decades without incident before former Governor Pete Wilson’s correction’s department banned media interviews in 1995,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee. “It’s encouraging to note that California legislators recognize the important public interest in knowing what’s going on in state-funded prisons and are determined to reverse the policies of the executive branch.”

The Reporters Committee is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving First Amendment rights of journalists and the news media. Founded in 1970, it has provided research, guidance and representation in major press cases in state and federal courts, including in cases concerning access to government institutions.

———————————————————————- Attachment: Copy of letter to Governor Gray Davis

August 29, 2000

Governor Gray Davis Governor’s Office State Capitol, Floor 1 Sacramento, CA 95814

Via facsimile (916-445-4633) and US Mail

Dear Governor Davis:

A bill that would allow journalists access to prison inmates (AB 2101) has been passed by the California legislature and should be presented to you in the coming week. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press strongly encourages you to sign the bill.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is an organization dedicated to protecting the First Amendment rights of journalists. We believe that the principles behind the First Amendment require a careful consideration of AB 2101. It has long been recognized that the press serves the public interest when it reveals timely, truthful information about our government and its activities. Prisons are a vital government function for promoting the safety of our communities. Unfortunately, there have been instances of improper conduct within our nation’s prisons. Whether such improprieties are perpetrated by prison employees or the inmates themselves, it would be advantageous to allow journalists to have meaningful access to inmates to discover the truth. It would boost the public’s confidence to know that the government is not trying to conceal its affairs, and the press would be able to further alleviate the public’s concerns by educating them about the process and procedures that make our communities safer. Prison security should not be a concern in signing the bill because AB 2101 provides ample discretion for wardens to deny a particular interview where security risks are too high. The freedom of the press, therefore, need not be abridged by a blanket policy banning interviews.

It has been reported that you are concerned that face-to-face interviews between journalists and inmates would unnecessarily bestow special privileges upon the media. We urge you to consider that, although the newsgathering process requires procedures that are slightly different from an ordinary visit, accommodations such as allowing cameras, pens, notepads or other tools of the trade are necessary to make a complete and accurate historical record. The citizens of California, as well as the rest of the United States, should be educated about our prisons — especially when those prisons are funded with taxpayer dollars. A free, unrestrained news media is essential to that educational process.

We ask that you sign AB 2101 so that the press may effectively chronicle the activities of our justice system and the public may feel more confident in the performance of our prisons.

Sincerely,

Lucy Dalglish Executive Director The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

cc: Assemblywoman Carole Migden By fax: 415-673-5794