Brown rejects expanding media access to prisons
There is a parade of journalists these days passing through California's hard-core Pelican Bay State Prison, home to the state's most violent and dangerous inmates. But the wing that reporters most want to see -- and the inmates whom they most want to interview, the organizers of a statewide hunger strike over prison conditions -- are off limits.
So it should stay, said Gov. Jerry Brown, who on Sunday vetoed a bill that would have allowed open media access to the state's prison population. Brown said AB 1270 went "too far" in allowing reporters to speak to just about any inmate, creating a spotlight he said that can be abused. "Giving prisoners celebrity status through repeated appearances on television will glorify their crimes and hurt victims and their families," Brown wrote.
California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), who sponsored the bill, said lack of media access to the state's prisons since 1996 helped foster the inhumane conditions that prompted multiple class action suits and federal court orders for improved care. "We should know when the California prisons aren’t being well run before it goes to court," Ammiano said.
Reporters are generally taken on tours of state prisons and allowed to speak to inmates they encounter in pre-selected areas, such as exercise yards. But those who want to speak to a particular inmate must correspond in writing or asked to be put on the prisoner's personal visitation list, and undergo background checks, a bureaucratic process that takes weeks to navigate.
State corrections officials are currently granting media access to the remote Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California. The prison is the central focus of a class action lawsuit over the housing of thousands of inmates in "segregation" cells that approach solitary confinement. Reporters for Rolling Stone and Mother Jones, as well as California Watch, have recently visited, said Capt. Christopher Acosta.
The media tours include a talk with the warden, staff briefings on prison gangs, and a tour of a prison yard and access to speak to a handful of inmates, including some pre-selected by corrections officers because they have denounced gang activity. However, Acosta said, reporters cannot enter the so-called Short Corridor, nor interview any of the inmates housed there who organized a statewide hunger strike to protest prison living conditions.
Prison rights activist Emily Harris said such censorship distorts the public understanding of what goes on in prisons, and even who prisoners are. "If someone was to sue for inadequate healthcare, then that person should be able to speak to the press," said Harris, statewide coordinator of CURB, a sponsor of the bill. CURB opposes prison expansion in the state.
Photo: The front of an isolation cell at Pelican Bay State Prison in 2011.