Prisons have a place in our society. They provide punishment and sometimes positive rehabilitation of those who have committed crimes. But shouldn't we know what happens to the people we send behind the walls of our prisons? The walls are so high and so thick, they not only keep prisoners locked away from the general public, they also keep the general public locked out.
In a democracy, that's where the press comes in. It is our job to go where the public can't go, including prisons, and to report back what we see, hear, smell, witness, discover. But there's a problem.
In California, credentialed reporters are prohibited from asking to see, meet with, speak to or photograph any of the more than 130,000 state prisoners, by name. Title 15 of the California Code of Regulations states, "News media may be permitted random face to face interviews with inmates." That is all.
So even if a reporter is pesky enough to get permission for press access inside one of the state's 32 prisons, any contact with any inmate must be entirely "random."
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.
Over the past five years, I have been reporting on California's prisons for "This American Life," National Public Radio and the local NPR affiliate in San Francisco, KALW. Yes, I was able to secure press access and even negotiate for further interviews with inmates by asking to stop by the chapel on my way or walk around the recreation yard. It was the only option for a follow-up interview so I could complete a story. Many good reporters, frustrated by the regulation and heightened control, simply give up.
Indeed, my access has been so unusual, I was awarded a National Edward R. Murrow Award for one story. Fortunately, a few administrators inside the prison were willing to use their discretion to support my work. And yet, even I have not been able to secure reliable access to California's prisons or the inmates living inside their walls. All I can do is hope to keep pressing, so I can report on a small fraction of the important stories that should be told.
It wasn't always this difficult for press to get access to California's prisons and the individuals living inside them. According to one CDCR press official, back in the mid-1990s the Legislature, under pressure from crime victims groups, issued policy directives limiting inmates' contact with reporters.
Today, the CDCR has adapted to the regulations and say they make it nearly impossible for TMZ-style reporters to get access to celebrity inmates such as Charles Manson or Scott Peterson. Perhaps historically they were criticized for allowing it and were bothered by it themselves.
But it's gone too far. Today, by following rules given to them by the Legislature, the CDCR press office limits the ability of the press to fairly and transparently report on the inmates and on events and conditions inside the state's prisons.
Assemblyman Tom Ammiano has introduced legislation that would bring much needed common sense to press access to the state's prisons and inmates.
The San Francisco Democrat's bill, Assembly Bill 1270, would give credentialed reporters the opportunity to request interviews with specific inmates either by name or CDCR number, allowing for both initial and follow-up interviews.
It's time the press and the public knew what is happening inside our prisons. Passage of AB 1270 is an important step to making our $9 billion-a-year prison system transparent and accountable.