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The Big Veto: Our Governors Hate Inmate Media-Access Bills 

Wednesday, Oct 17 2012

For a branch of government famous for its ability to find novel ways not to get things done, it's impressive that California's state Legislature has overwhelmingly supported policy to grant journalists easier access to interview prison inmates. Nine times over the past two decades, the Senate and Assembly have passed versions of such a bill.

But nine times over the past two decades, governors have vetoed all prison media access bills.

Supporters of the legislation, which passed the Assembly 47-22 and the Senate 21-13, had thought that the ninth try might be it. Gov. Jerry Brown, after all, is a prison reform advocate. He's set parolees free at more than double the rate of each of his three predecessors. During this last session he signed one bill allowing juvenile offenders to appeal a life sentence after serving 15 years and another one that will let inmates who committed a crime against an abusive partner petition for release.

Plus, the timing for a media access bill seemed right. Brown's been overseeing a prison system in turmoil — from inmates holding hunger strikes to protest solitary confinement conditions, to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the state's prisons were unconstitutionally overcrowded.

With all that apparent injustice going on behind those walls, surely this governor would find sensible a bill that would allow journalists to request interviews with specific inmates, that would add greater transparency to one of society's most isolated institutions — a bill that even the prison guards union supported.

Nope. Repeating the same qualms past governors have conveyed, Brown declared that wardens wouldn't have enough power to deny interviews and that "giving criminals celebrity status through repeated appearances on television will glorify their crimes and hurt the victims and their families."

To the bill's supporters, though, this is simply a case of Brown, like his predecessors, protecting his own neck.

"Governors are much more in a place of having something to hide," says Emily Harris, coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget. "If we let the media in and we let the light in, what is that going to mean for them?"

That's what separates legislators from the man in the executive branch. If an inmate interview illuminates problems within the prison, or if a victim's family publicly condemns a murderer's television appearance, that falls at the feet of the governor.

Brown's backhanded support for the bill's philosophy — "I agree that too little media access can be harmful, but too much can be as well" — would have had more credibility if he hadn't stayed silent about the policy until it reached his desk.

"He's hiding behind a false argument and perception," says Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), who authored the bill. "And it's a shame."

About The Author

Albert Samaha


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