The prison industrial complex–one of America’s costliest public institutions, fueled by billions in tax dollars and millions of devastated lives–operates largely without public scrutiny. While mainstream news outlets flood us with sensational crime reporting, they pay comparatively little attention to the brutal conditions within U.S. prisons.


And in California, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis appears determined to keep it that way. Following in the footsteps of his Republican predecessor, on September 7 Davis vetoed a bill that would have lifted a California Department of Correction’s ban on face-to-face interviews with prison inmates,instituted in 1994 after a series of high-profile prisoner abuse cases. While media access advocates and prisoner rights activists are unanimous in their denunciation of Davis’s action, they also criticize the corporate media for merely paying editorial lip service to First Amendment rights and failing to mount meaningful opposition to the ban.

According to a 1998 Society of Professional Journalists report, California–home to more than 160,000 inmates–has one of the most restrictive media access policies in the United States. The report found that nationally, policies vary greatly, with North Carolina, Texas, and Utah offering the broadest access and California standing out as a restrictions pioneer.

The media lockout, says Christian Parenti, journalist and author of Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis, serves a dual function. “Politicians want to appear ruthlessly tough on crime–it’s instrumental to their political careers–and they want to keep a lid on what is going on in prisons as a result of their tough-on-crime policies.”

AB 1440, introduced by Assemblywoman Carole Migden (D-San Francisco), would have restored media access to its pre-ban status by reinstating face-to-face interviews, restoring prisoners’ right to confidential correspondence with media representatives, and allowing journalists to use cameras, recording devices, and writing instruments while conducting interviews. AB 1440’s precursor, SB 434, was vetoed in 1997 by then-governor Pete Wilson.

Davis defended his veto by claiming that AB 1440 would “give journalists preferential treatment” and allot them “greater access than even members [of prisoners’] own families.”

But journalists argue that the ban interferes with the public’s right to know. The CDC now requires reporters to make contact with an inmate, be placed on a visiting list, get cleared by the CDC, then set up a visit–a process that San Francisco Bay Guardian reporter Adam Clay Thompson says takes six to eight weeks.

“That’s a pretty major roadblock to doing journalism about prison conditions,” says Thompson. “Then, when you have your visit, it’s in a room with guards watching and people all around. It’s not conducive to people being particularly forthcoming.”

Such restrictions make it impossible for the American public to be meaningfully involved in prison-related policy decisions, says journalist and media access advocate Peter Sussman.

“How can we decide policy or determine penalties when we’re not allowed to talk to the people most affected?” asks Sussman, past president of the Northern California SPJ chapter and co-author, with prisoner-journalist Dannie Martin, of Committing Journalism: The Prison Writings of Red Hog. “Three strikes is an issue of ongoing public concern–journalists should be interviewing three-strikers.”

Gov. Davis seems intent not only on keeping journalists away from prisons, but also on keeping criminal justice policies free from public scrutiny. On October 10, Davis vetoed SB 873, a bill introduced by Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara) that called for a study of the effectiveness of California’s three-strikes legislation.

Life in the SHU

Some of the prison system’s most compelling and undercovered stories take place in Security Housing Units–“the SHU.” Despite CDC roadblocks, reports of gross brutality and homicidal abuse occasionally make their way into the mainstream news media. Thanks to the determination of prisoner rights lawyers and activists, former inmates, journalists, and whistle-blowing corrections officers, eight guards have been indicted for staging “gladiator-style” fights between inmates in Corcoran State Prison’s SHU, and four more are currently on trial for setting up the 1993 prison-cell rape of Eddie Dillard.

Mary Rubach of California Prison Focus, while pleased that the Corcoran story hit the mainstream press, is quick to point out that the CDC’s human rights violations are not isolated incidents. They are systemic, policy driven, and ongoing, she says. “General prison conditions in California’s SHUs aren’t getting the media coverage they deserve,” Rubach says.

A prison within a prison, the SHU is ostensibly designed to protect the general prison population from the “worst of the worst.” While prisoners are put into Administrative Segregation–“the hole”–for allegedly violating prison regulations, to get into the SHU inmates need only be associated with a gang. Once in the SHU, the only way out is through parole, debriefing (implicating other gang members), or death.

“In the SHU there is no redress, no hearing, no defense,” says Rubach.

Prisoner rights activists point to the CDC’s integrated yard practice as an example of prison officials using policy to administer racist and brutal violence against prison populations. In the SHU–where exercise yards are no larger than a handball court–a yard that pushes prisoners of different gang affiliations together doesn’t reduce conflict, it exacerbates it.

Since Corcoran State prison opened in 1988, guards have killed seven inmates and injured hundreds more through the use of excessive force in breaking up staged fights. California is the only state that allows the use of deadly force to break up fights.

In the Security Housing Unit there is no redress, no hearing, no defense.

While the exposure of some Corcoran State Prison atrocities is an important victory for prisoner rights advocates, it is not necessarily the result of great journalism. Most of the reporting on Corcoran came after the fact. This is significant because many of the incidents central to civil rights suits based on prisoner abuse at Corcoran happened prior to the CDC’s implementation of the ban on face-to-face inmate interviews. Were it not for the dedicated work of prison rights lawyers, it is unlikely that the institutional violence at Corcoran would ever have reached the public.

Pell v. Procunier

Prison rebellions, legal challenges, and media exposure throughout the ’70s brought conditions within U.S. correctional institutions to the attention of the American public and resulted in much-needed prison reform. But while gains were made, there were also setbacks. In a 1974 case–Pell v. Procunier–the Supreme Court ruled that media access to prisons was not a constitutional guarantee under the First Amendment. The court ruled that the public’s right to information must be balanced with law enforcement’s “security interests.”

Such rulings, along with the court’s broad interpretation of “security interests,” laid the foundation for increased media access restrictions across the United States.

Because of Pell and other precedent-setting cases, litigation is not necessarily the best strategy in the fight for media access, says Alan Schlosser, managing attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. “The law in this area is very difficult. Cases must be chosen carefully.”

The ACLU has strongly opposed the CDC ban and was an active supporter of AB 1440. “This bill was positive and necessary. We have a growing prison system with numerous documented cases of prisoner abuse,” says Schlosser.

But neither the ACLU nor the mainstream media has fought hard enough for access, and the opposition it has put up has been misguided, according to Noelle Hanrahan, director of the Prison Radio Project.

After journalists were locked out of portions of the 1996 execution of William Bonin–California’s first lethal injection and third execution since the 1992 reinstatement of capital punishment–the ACLU, on behalf of the Northern California chapter of the SPJ and the California First Amendment Coalition, sued for total access to the CDC’s executions.

“It’s disgusting,” says Hanrahan. “They sued for the right to see the needle go into Bonin’s arm, but not for the right to talk to him.”

In any case, there are many prison issues other than Corcoran-style abuse and sensational details of state executions that should be brought to the public’s attention, Hanrahan says. “Our nation’s prisons have become genocidal environments because of the gross mismanagement of public health issues,” she says. “Sex happens in prisons, drug use happens in prisons–yet there are virtually no safe-sex or HIV education programs.”

No Camera, No Story

Conspicuously absent from the access debate is the media’s most powerful member and the one most severely impacted by the ban–television.

If diligent, print journalists, while denied face-to-face interviews with specific inmates, are able to gain access through phone calls and visiting hours. The CDC’s prohibition on broadcast equipment, however, bars television journalists all together–no camera, no story. Yet while the California Broadcasters Association backed AB 1440, the industry as a whole has applied barely a fraction of its considerable corporate muscle to the issue of access.

Ever loyal to the “if it bleeds, it leads” motto, television coverage of our criminal justice system remains focused on the sensational. According to a Rocky Mountain Media Watch report, local news programs allot 30 percent of their air time to bloody crime reports and none to coverage of the prisoner rights movement.

Hassling Journalists

Those journalists who do attempt to do investigative work on prison issues often receive little support from their superiors. “Aggressive investigative reporting that attacks people in power is not rewarded by editors of major news institutions,” notes Hanrahan.

They may also be targeted by state officials. Sussman, who co-wrote SB 434 and testified before the Assembly on behalf of AB 1440, was attacked by state attorneys earlier this year. The California attorney general’s office deposed Sussman in connection with a former inmate’s civil suit against the CDC and subpoenaed his confidential notes and records–including a contract with Harper’s magazine for an upcoming article about prisons. Sussman believes the attorney general’s intent was, at least in part, to harass and intimidate him.

“I was asked questions that had no relevance to the case–blatantly political questions like, ‘Is it a fair characterization to say that you helped guide the Kopp legislation [SB 434] through the house?'” says Sussman.

The print media rallied to Sussman’s defense, with most major papers in Northern California running editorials or stories. Sussman refused to forfeit any documents, and–after two depositions and 14 hours of testimony–state attorneys eventually backed down.

Media access restrictions, however, are designed not only to keep the media and the public in the dark about prisons, but also to silence and punish inmates who dare to talk to the press. And unfortunately, those behind bars don’t have Sussman’s connections (he’s a former editor of the San Francisco Chronicle).

“Prison Blues”

Shearwood Fleming and Charles Ervin each spent 44 days in the hole for “impugning the credibility” of CMT Blues, a San Diego prison industry program. The two allegedly told the news media that they were forced to replace “Made in Honduras” labels on privately manufactured T-shirts with “Made in the USA” labels as part of their duties at the prison’s garment sewing operation.

Laura Castaneda, the KGTV (Channel 10, San Diego) reporter who broke the label-switching story, said her “source” was a non-inmate whose identity she would not reveal. Formal charges were never filed against either inmate and both were eventually released from solitary confinement and transferred to separate prisons. The CDC’s ban makes interviews with either prisoner difficult to obtain.

This is not to say the prison officials are completely opposed to media coverage. On the contrary, they are as cognizant of the media’s potential as a public relations vehicle as they are of its power to expose abuse. Mark Carnopis, information officer for Idaho’s correctional facilities, responded to an SPJ survey question about the criteria for granting access by writing, “We look for compelling reasons why the interview should take place. How will the interview benefit the department?”

Prison officials and tough-on-crime politicians have become increasingly adept at using the media to garner public support for increased prison spending.

Steve Rigg, a whistle-blowing former guard pivotal in the exposure of the Corcoran atrocities, believes that much of Corcoran’s violence was deliberately engineered to convince the public of the CDC’s need for more money.

Getting the Word Out

There are journalists who don’t need to circumvent media access bans–they’re already inside. Dan Pens and Paul Wright, two Washington state convicts, edit and publish Prison Legal News. In circulation since 1990, PLN covers prison-related news and legal decisions.

PLN‘s insider perspective and hard-hitting journalism make it an invaluable resource for criminal defense lawyers, prisoner rights activists, and outside journalists. Pens and Wright, together with Daniel Burton-Rose, have compiled a selection of PLN articles in the book The Celling of America: An Inside Look at the U.S. Prison Industry.

PLN journalists do more than chronicle the increasingly cruel and vindictive nature of America’s criminal justice system–they make connections between what goes on behind cell doors and what goes on beyond them, broadening the usually narrow crime debate.

“Celebrity Convicts”

Davis justified his veto of AB 1440 by saying the bill was “inconsistent with the national trend to reduce, not expand, rights of prisoners,” and that its passage would provide “celebrity to convicts.”

But prisoner rights activists don’t think it’s celebrity criminals that prison authorities and politicians are worried about. Rather, it’s inmates who might expose the deplorable conditions inside U.S. prisons–people like Pens, Wright, and 17-year death row veteran Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Hours before the first of a series of commentaries by Abu-Jamal–radio journalist and former Black Panther–was to be broadcast in 1994, National Public Radio caved in to pressure from the Fraternal Order of Police and then-Sen. Bob Dole and canceled the program. Ten of Abu-Jamal’s taped essays remain locked in NPR vaults.

Hanrahan, producer of Abu-Jamal’s radio commentaries, says that while Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections had one of the country’s more open media access policies in the early ’90s, prison authorities were still successful at shutting down access to Abu-Jamal on numerous occasions.

According to the SPJ’s Access to Prisons Report, Hanrahan’s experience is not unique to Pennsylvania. In correctional institutions across the country there are major discrepancies between policy and practice. Of the 39 states that allowed inmate interviews in 1996, most had broad “security concern” clauses that made access subject to the discretion of prison officials. The SPJ report found that while Idaho’s written policy, for example, allows face-to-face interviews, corrections director James Spalding had not granted a prisoner interview since his 1993 appointment.

In Abu-Jamal’s case, the courts ruled the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ denial of access unconstitutional on the grounds that Abu-Jamal was being unfairly targeted. Pennsylvania lawmakers responded in 1996 by passing the “Mumia Law”–a California-style blanket ban on face-to-face prisoner interviews.

The Prison Radio Project recorded a new set of commentaries by Abu-Jamal just days before the Pennsylvania ban went into effect. The recordings have aired nationally on Pacifica Radio and been compiled on a CD titled All Things Censored.

Abu-Jamal, who twice a month uses his ten-minute weekly phone access to call Pacifica’s Democracy Now program, has also published two compilations of essays, Live From Death Row and Death Blossoms.

In addition to humanizing death row inmates, Abu-Jamal’s commentaries–like the journalism of Pens and Wright–offer a powerful political critique of the prison industrial complex and the racist, classist system that spawned it. Such critiques deserve to be heard, and the mainstream media should not only seek access more vigorously–it should also grant space and air time to prisoner journalists.