California prisons object to expanding media access to inmates
California prison officials are opposing legislation that would increase media access to inmates, saying it would cost too much money to facilitate interviews.
In a letter dated Thursday, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said the bill would "create significant new costs and increase workload."
Emily Harris of Californians United for a Responsible Budget, which opposes heavy prison spending, said officials are overstating the costs in hopes of persuading budget-cutting lawmakers to scuttle the legislation.
"This is a last-minute effort to quash the bill," she said.
The bill has already passed the Assembly 47 to 22, and it was approved by a Senate committee last month.
Reporters are able to tour prisons and interview inmates during their visits, but they are not allowed to request interviews with specific inmates unless they arrange to meet them during visiting hours. That means high-profile criminals like Charles Manson and newsmakers like the inmates who organized a hunger strike to protest prison conditions are often beyond the reach of the media.
The legislation, sponsored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), would change that, requiring officials to process interview requests within 48 hours. Officials would also need to notify the inmates' victims that an interview was taking place.
Similar legislation has circulated in the Capitol before. It was vetoed in 2006 by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said policies in place already allowed the "free flow of information from the prison environment into the outside world." He also said "it is important to avoid treating inmates as celebrities."
Ammiano said the prison system's opposition was disappointing.
“It comes down to transparency," he said. "We have a right to know how prisons are operating on the inside.”
Terry Thornton, a prison spokeswoman, said reporters have enough opportunities to see prisons from the inside. Most of the interview requests the department receives involve celebrity inmates or sensational crimes, not prison conditions, she said.
Officials allowed one interview request this year when it involved a federal inmate in state prison, costing $437, Thornton said. The department receives a couple of hundred interview requests each year, she said, and officials expect that number to increase if the legislation passes.
At that rate, 500 interviews would cost $218,500, about 0.002% of the department's $8.86-billion budget.
-- Chris Megerian in Sacramento
Photo: Pelican Bay State Prison, California's highest-security prison. Credit: John Burgess / Associated Press