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Monday, October 1, 2012

Gov. Brown Won't Let Reporters Have Easy Access to Prison Inmates

Posted By on Mon, Oct 1, 2012 at 2:55 PM

Gov. Jerry Brown
  • Gov. Jerry Brown
Assembly Bill 1270, passed by both chambers of the state legislature, would have allowed journalists to set up interviews with specific inmates in state prisons. Eight times over the past two decades a similar bill had passed through to the governor's desk, and all eight times it was vetoed.

The streak continues. Yesterday, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the prison media access bill.

Brown offered two main reasons for blocking the bill: 1. Wardens would only be able to deny interviews that posed an "immediate and direct threat" to the security of the prison, which, the governor said, is "too high" a standard; and 2. "Giving criminals celebrity status through repeated appearances on television will glorify their crimes and hurt the victims and their families."

The governor, of course, was mum about this bill from the start, famously keeping his position close to the vest for the past few months. So a cynic might find it a bit disingenuous for him to conclude in his veto statement, "I agree that too little media access can be harmful, but too much can be as well." If he really did care about this issue, that cynic might ask, why didn't he offer any input to help the bill achieve the proper balance between "too little" and "too much?"

"Currently reporters are allowed to correspond with inmates by visiting them face-to-face, or contacting them by telephone and mail," he wrote. "Wardens can also let reporters conduct random face-to-face interviews with tape recorders, notebooks, and cameras."

What Brown does not acknowledge, however, is that journalists are not allowed to request interviews with specific inmates. A reporter can meet with an inmate only if the inmate files a request to meet with him as an official prison visitor, or if the reporter randomly runs into the inmate during a guided tour of the facility.

"The governor totally missed the point," Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), the bill's sponsor, tells SF Weekly. "He's hiding behind a false argument and perception."

The legislation would have required that prisons, given advanced notice, allow reporters to interview specific inmates as long as it doesn't "pose an immediate and direct threat to the security of the institution or the physical safety of a member of the public." Journalists would be allowed to bring in cameras, notebooks, and recording equipment.

Reporter Nancy Mullane, who has covered the state's prison system for This American Life, effectively summarized the flaws of the current media access policy in an August op-ed in the Sacramento Bee:

Let's say an inmate has filed a lawsuit against the state, been injured in a riot, has direct knowledge about criminal conduct or has been involved in a high-profile court case. Reporters can only hope that while they are being escorted by a prison public information officer, they will randomly run into the specific inmate they need for a story.
Not only are reporters prohibited from requesting an initial interview with a specific inmate by name or California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation number, they are also prohibited from asking for a follow-up interview with an inmate they might have interviewed while on a previous "random" press visit.

The prison guards union, along with media organizations and civil rights groups, have supported the bill. The state's Corrections Department and victims' rights groups have opposed it.

"[Press access is] a way for the public to know that the prisons it pays for are well-run," Ammiano said in a statement released today. "The CDCR's unwillingness to be transparent is part of what has led to court orders on prison health care and overcrowding."

Brown did approve another prison reform policy yesterday, though, signing off on a bill that would give parole opportunities to juvenile offenders sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

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Albert Samaha


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