Behind Closed Doors: Covering America's Prisons

By Brunt, Jonathan | The Quill, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Behind Closed Doors: Covering America's Prisons


Brunt, Jonathan, The Quill


As the need for prison coverage increases, journalists run into roadblocks with state correctional systems.

In the mid 1980s, as the publisher of the weekly Scott County (Miss.) Times, Sid Salter was twice granted a face-to-face interview with one of the Mississippi's most notorious murderers. The sessions weren't monitored, cameras were allowed and one of them lasted three hours.

A decade and a half later, Mississippi's prisoner media access policy is one of the strictest in the nation.

No cameras. No face-to-face interviews. No phone interviews. Not for weeklies. Not for dailies. Not for television or any other media agent.

And with no public outcry about the restricted access, Salter, who also writes a column on Mississippi politics in 68 papers, doesn't see it changing any time soon.

"The families of the prisoners have the right to know the prisoners are being treated humanely. The families of the victims have the right to know that the inmate is being punished," said Salter. "We're in a situation where the media has been rendered blind and partially deaf by these regulations."

The stark changes prone to occur in prison access policies along with considerable differences among state policies make some wonder what the media - and the public - may be missing inside America's criminal justice system. Advocates for closing access, however, believe journalists give prisoners fame, thus harming prison security and victims alike.

Nine states won't set up face-to-face inmate interviews at all, in most cases forcing journalists to find their way on inmates' visitation lists - a process that can take months. But most states restrict reporters in numerous other ways.

State prison media access rules vary from allowing face-to-face and telephone interviews with almost all prisoners and with few restrictions on cameras, such as North Carolina's, to Wyoming's law that prevents prison officials from releasing any inmate information. There, the policy is so restrictive the state can't release photos of outlaw Butch Cassidy when he served time in the state pen. State law, not department rules, govern much of the prison access in Wyoming, and the department of corrections, which says the rules were never intended to be so restrictive, has joined historians and journalists in calling on the legislature to relax the laws.

In defense of the more restrictive rules, correction officials say press access creates a demand for more personnel to watch over interviews, transfer the prisoner and keep the journalist safe while maintaining order. They add that extra guards may not be possible given their state budgets. Further, they argue that granting media access to an inmate could give a prisoner celebrity status, which could harm the inmate's victims and make the inmate rebellious and cocky.

"The media in almost every case sensationalizes the case they are talking about," said Terry L. Stewart, Arizona Department of Corrections director. "Why would I let an inmate get his 15 minutes when there is an Arizona taxpayer" who has been victimized by the prisoner?

Journalists strike back that a booming prison population, recent concerns about innocent people lurking on death row and other traditional prison issues demand more public oversight. They add that prisoners with celebrity status usually have that status well before entering prison, and the victim's story rarely is lost in stories about inmates.

Denying access to journalists has allowed prisons to operate in a veil of secrecy, said Win. F. Hirschman, president of SPJ's South Florida Professional Chapter, who has worked for more prison access in Florida.

"One of the things that we think is so destructive by these efforts is how it undermines their credibility," said Hirschman, a (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) Sun-Sentinel education reporter. "They may or may not be operating a safe or fair operation. …

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