Larry Rice Banned from Interviewing Prisoners

Article excerpt

"If you are serious about crime, you need to talk to people in prison," says Rev. Larry Rice, president of tiny KNLC (Channel 24) in St. Louis.

Rice is serious about crime, but not unbiased. He attempted to use prisoner interviews to boost messages against crime and for prison reform.

It was lonely work. Other media turned their back on him. Then the Missouri Department of Corrections (DOC) reacted sharply and banned all face-to-face interviews with prisoners.

Channel 24 fought the state in court for media access to prisoners and lost. Rice faxed letters to news directors at other television stations asking them to join his suit, but none of them did.

Managers at mainstream television stations assured themselves that the decision wouldn't affect them. "I would hope we would not be painted with the same brush as Larry Rice," says Tim Larson, news director at KSDK (Channel 5).

It's a false hope. Tim Kniest, the Department of Corrections' public information officer, says the ban on face-to-face interviews applies "across the board" to all media until the department establishes new guidelines that also will apply to everyone.

While it was Channel 24's requests that prompted the DOC to ban face-to-face interviews, "we were very clear that we weren't singling anyone out," says Kniest. "It had to apply to everyone." Kniest was one of the four state officials who had a hand in making the ban. The others were Dora Schriro, director of the DOC, George Lombardi, director of the division of adult institutions, and Patricia Churchill, general counsel of the DOC.

The ban went into effect on April 23. The DOC notified only Channel 24 of the ban, because only Channel 24 was seeking face-to-face interviews. When two Kansas City stations later sought face-to-face interviews, "We said no," says Kniest. The stations, WDAF and KNBC, had to settle for telephone interviews.

In the course of a year, Channel 24 representatives filed requests for interviews with 49 inmates in Missouri prisons. The prison population is about 20,000. The DOC granted 34 of those requests. The highest number of requests in the least amount of time was at the Jefferson City Correctional Center, a 2,000-inmate maximum security institution, where Channel 24 requested 11 interviews in one month. The DOC granted seven of those requests.

Kniest says such a "large number" of interviews affects the "safety and security" of state prisons. He points out that the prison population is growing rapidly. "We have a net growth of about seven males and 12 females a day," he says. So the prison officials cannot always make staff available to arrange interviews in a secure setting, he says.

KNLC's requests were unusual for naming specific prisoners. Most television stations let prison officials choose interviewees, requesting only that they be from a particular category of prisoner, such as sex offenders or burglars.

Rice, who opposes the death penalty, says he submitted "six or seven" requests for interviews with inmates on death row. …