More Prisons Tighten Access to Inmates

Article excerpt

As populations, costs increase, media shut out

With adult prison populations peaking at nearly 1 million, 15 states have restricted or shut off access to inmates.

There are 1,391 state prisons that together house almost a million inmates.

Annual operating costs are $22 billion.

The 1996 figures from the Criminal Justice Institute also indicate that the number of prisons will increase 18.5 percent by the turn of the century.

At the same time, assaults inside those prisons-both on staff and other inmates-are on the rise.

Prison officials, citing security concems, are invoking more restrictions than ever before.

"It's more important than ever to get inside the walls and accurately report on what is going on. Without access, that can't be done,' said Kyle E. Niederpruem, Freedom of Information Chair for the Society of Professional Journalists.

Niederpruem said fighting such restrictions through lawsuits is almost impossible.

The U.S. Supreme Court looks to two cases: Pell vs. Procunier (1974) and Turner vs. Safley (1987).

The Pell decision says journalists have no constitutional right of access to prisons or their inmates other than what is afforded to the general public.

Turner defers to prison administrators who must show that a regulation is reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest, such as security.

"Prison officials know they can stretch these rules and regulations to the limit in denying access," she said.

The first state to embrace a restrictive policy, setting the trend for the nation, was California.

California officials complain they have been inundated with requests from reporters to interview such well-known inmates as Charles Manson and the Menendez brothers.

Manson led a group of followers in the 1969 killings of several Californians including actress Sharon Tate. Lyle and Eric Menendez were convicted of first-degree murder in March 1996 for the shotgun killings of their parents.

The policies were created, those officials say, to prevent high-profile criminals from becoming celebrities. Numerous books, movies and documentaries have singled out Manson as one of the most notorious criminals of this century.

Tip Kidwell, public relations officer for the California corrections department, couldn't offer an example of how Manson might achieve greater celebrity status.

The policy that Kidwell defends allows face-to-face random interviews if members of the news media stumble upon an inmate during general visiting hours.

The policy also allows a reporter to be placed on an inmate's visitation list, but the reporter is not allowed to have a notebook, camera or tape recorder.

"There is no way for a reporter to do any accurate reporting in these conditions," said Peter Sussman, one of the state's sunshine chairs and president of the Northern California SPJ chapter.

Incidents of gang violence and drug abuse have prompted Illinois prison administrators to restrict access, said Gary Marx, a Chicago Tribune reporter who covers prisons.

He said increased violence in state prisons is adding to the tendency to limit access. In 1995, there were 45,458 assaults committed nationwide by inmates against other inmates and staff.

The average number of assaults against staff increased from 220 per state in 1992 to 314 in 1995.

While the Illinois policy appears to be fairly open, Marx does not find it easy to get inside.

"With the political spotlight on the DOC you have to pry your way in," Marx said. "They don't just want to know who I'm talking to; they want to know why and they want to know what we're saying.

While working on a series about gang problems, Marx signed up to see an inmate to discuss a gang-related murder. "When the inmate was brought out we were purposely seated next to the officer's desk," Marx said. …