Limiting Media Access to Prisoners  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    FIRST AMENDMENT WATCH    
From AJR,   March 1996

Limiting Media Access to Prisoners   

California won't allow news organizations to set up face-to-face interviews with specific inmates. It's a misguided policy.

By Jane Kirtley
Jane Kirtley (kirtl001@tc.umn.edu) is the Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communications.     


Just after Christmas, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the state of California had sharply curtailed media access to the 135,000 inmates incarcerated in its 31 prisons.

The interim policy prohibits news organizations from setting up face-to-face interviews with specific prisoners. Media representatives still may visit prisons and talk to inmates at random, or ask to be placed on an inmate's visitor list. Prisoners who have telephone privileges can call reporters collect, or write letters to them, but such contracts are subject to random monitoring by authorities.

The policy – implemented without fanfare a couple of months earlier – was adopted because "we didn't want to have inmates becoming celebrities and heroes," says J.P. Tremblay, assistant secretary of the state's Youth and Adult Correctional Agency.

He added that besides being offended by prisoners using the media to promote themselves or their books or, worst of all, to complain about prison conditions, state authorities were tired of acting as go-betweens, setting up interviews with the "tabloid press." "Our intent is not to limit access to mainstream media," Tremblay says. "The trouble is that the line between legitimate news and entertainment news..is getting blurred."

It's hard to say which is more reprehensible: state officials cutting off media access to a government institution, or setting up a system as a subterfuge to engage in content control, spin doctoring and censorship.

In drafting their policy, California authorities were smart enough to know that they couldn't constitutionally differentiate between what they regard as "legitimate" media and their bastard cousins. Governments aren't supposed to discriminate against individual news organizations. So instead they promulgated their across-the-board regulations, relying on a pair of 1974 U.S. Supreme Court decisions that held that journalists have no greater right of access to prisons than the general public, and no First Amendment right to interview specific inmates.

The new policy was praised by victims' rights groups, who have long complained that media coverage glorifies perpetrators of crime, ignores victims and causes great pain to surviving family members.

The coverage may at times do all those things, but it also serves as an important check on government misconduct. The new California policy assumes that the system always functions perfectly, that only guilty people are convicted, and that conditions in the state's prisons invariably meet minimum standards of health and safety.

It also assumes that government officials who control media access to prisoners will resist the urge to stifle inmates with legitimate grievances that might prove embarrassing if made public. A federal appeals court in Cincinnati recognized that this is not always the case when it struck a blow for accountability a few weeks later. It rejected a disingenuous request by the Justice Department to uphold its refusal to release mug shots of eight individuals indicted and awaiting trial to the Detroit Free Press.

The government claimed that because mug shots can be unflattering and carry a strong connotation of guilt, their release would be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

Unimpressed by the government's pious attempt to avoid stigmatizing indicted suspects, the Court of Appeals ruled that because the defendants had already been identified by name and had appeared in court, the Justice Department would have to release their photographs. There simply was no privacy interest at stake, the court said.

The panel went on to say that even if releasing mug shots had privacy implications, the public interest in disclosure could justify making the pictures available. Mug shots can reveal whether the wrong person has been arrested more powerfully than the publication of only a name, the court said, and can demonstrate the "circumstances surrounding arrest in a way that written information cannot."

If a mug shot of Rodney King had been released to the media, it might have "alerted the world that [he] had been subjected to much more than a routine traffic stop, and that the actions and practices of the arresting officers should be scrutinized," the panel said.

It is significant that the court chose an infamous example from California to illustrate its conclusion that media oversight is critical to keeping the criminal justice system accountable. At a time when the criminal justice system in California, and throughout the United States, should be subject to the closest scrutiny, a policy that makes it harder to monitor prison operations doesn't bode well for government accountability. l

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