||Corcoran State Prison
Photo © 1999 Scott Braley
The prison industrial complex--one of America's costliest
public institutions, fueled by billions in tax dollars and millions of
devastated lives--operates largely without public scrutiny. While mainstream
news outlets flood us with sensational crime reporting, they pay comparatively
little attention to the brutal conditions within U.S. prisons.
And in California, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis appears determined to keep
it that way. Following in the footsteps of his Republican predecessor, on
September 7 Davis vetoed a bill that would have lifted a California Department
of Correction's ban on face-to-face interviews with prison inmates,instituted
in 1994 after a series of high-profile prisoner abuse cases. While media
access advocates and prisoner rights activists are unanimous in their denunciation
of Davis's action, they also criticize the corporate media for merely paying
editorial lip service to First Amendment rights and failing to mount meaningful
opposition to the ban.
According to a 1998 Society of Professional Journalists report, California--home
to more than 160,000 inmates--has one of the most restrictive media access
policies in the United States. The report found that nationally, policies
vary greatly, with North Carolina, Texas, and Utah offering the broadest
access and California standing out as a restrictions pioneer.
The media lockout, says Christian Parenti, journalist and author of Lockdown
America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis, serves a dual function. "Politicians
want to appear ruthlessly tough on crime--it's instrumental to their political
careers--and they want to keep a lid on what is going on in prisons as
a result of their tough-on-crime policies."
AB 1440, introduced by Assemblywoman Carole Migden (D-San Francisco), would
have restored media access to its pre-ban status by reinstating face-to-face
interviews, restoring prisoners' right to confidential correspondence with
media representatives, and allowing journalists to use cameras, recording
devices, and writing instruments while conducting interviews. AB 1440's precursor,
SB 434, was vetoed in 1997 by then-governor Pete Wilson.
Davis defended his veto by claiming that AB 1440 would "give journalists
preferential treatment" and allot them "greater access than even
members [of prisoners'] own families."
But journalists argue that the ban interferes with the public's right to
know. The CDC now requires reporters to make contact with an inmate, be placed
on a visiting list, get cleared by the CDC, then set up a visit--a process
that San Francisco Bay Guardian reporter Adam Clay Thompson says takes
six to eight weeks.
"That's a pretty major roadblock to doing journalism about prison conditions," says
Thompson. "Then, when you have your visit, it's in a room with guards
watching and people all around. It's not conducive to people being particularly
Such restrictions make it impossible for the American public to be meaningfully
involved in prison-related policy decisions, says journalist and media access
advocate Peter Sussman.
"How can we decide policy or determine penalties when we're not allowed
to talk to the people most affected?" asks Sussman, past president of
the Northern California SPJ chapter and co-author, with prisoner-journalist
Dannie Martin, of Committing Journalism: The Prison Writings of Red Hog. "Three
strikes is an issue of ongoing public concern--journalists should be interviewing
Gov. Davis seems intent not only on keeping journalists away from prisons,
but also on keeping criminal justice policies free from public scrutiny.
On October 10, Davis vetoed SB 873, a bill introduced by Sen. John Vasconcellos
(D-Santa Clara) that called for a study of the effectiveness of California's
Life in the SHU
Some of the prison system's most compelling and undercovered stories take
place in Security Housing Units--"the SHU." Despite CDC roadblocks,
reports of gross brutality and homicidal abuse occasionally make their way
into the mainstream news media. Thanks to the determination of prisoner rights
lawyers and activists, former inmates, journalists, and whistle-blowing corrections
officers, eight guards have been indicted for staging "gladiator-style" fights
between inmates in Corcoran State Prison's SHU, and four more are currently
on trial for setting up the 1993 prison-cell rape of Eddie Dillard.
Mary Rubach of California Prison Focus, while pleased that the Corcoran
story hit the mainstream press, is quick to point out that the CDC's human
rights violations are not isolated incidents. They are systemic, policy driven,
and ongoing, she says. "General prison conditions in California's SHUs
aren't getting the media coverage they deserve," Rubach says.
A prison within a prison, the SHU is ostensibly designed to protect the
general prison population from the "worst of the worst." While
prisoners are put into Administrative Segregation--"the hole"--for
allegedly violating prison regulations, to get into the SHU inmates need
only be associated with a gang. Once in the SHU, the only way out is through
parole, debriefing (implicating other gang members), or death.
"In the SHU there is no redress, no hearing, no defense," says
Prisoner rights activists point to the CDC's integrated yard practice as
an example of prison officials using policy to administer racist and brutal
violence against prison populations. In the SHU--where exercise yards are
no larger than a handball court--a yard that pushes prisoners of different
gang affiliations together doesn't reduce conflict, it exacerbates it.
Since Corcoran State prison opened in 1988, guards have killed seven inmates
and injured hundreds more through the use of excessive force in breaking
up staged fights. California is the only state that allows the use of deadly
force to break up fights.
In the Security Housing Unit t
here is no redress, no hearing, no defense.
While the exposure of some Corcoran State Prison atrocities is an important
victory for prisoner rights advocates, it is not necessarily the result of
great journalism. Most of the reporting on Corcoran came after the fact.
This is significant because many of the incidents central to civil rights
suits based on prisoner abuse at Corcoran happened prior to the CDC's implementation
of the ban on face-to-face inmate interviews. Were it not for the dedicated
work of prison rights lawyers, it is unlikely that the institutional violence
at Corcoran would ever have reached the public.
Prison rebellions, legal challenges, and media exposure throughout the '70s
brought conditions within U.S. correctional institutions to the attention
of the American public and resulted in much-needed prison reform. But while
gains were made, there were also setbacks. In a 1974 case--Pell v. Procunier--the
Supreme Court ruled that media access to prisons was not a constitutional
guarantee under the First Amendment. The court ruled that the public's right
to information must be balanced with law enforcement's "security interests."
Such rulings, along with the court's broad interpretation of "security
interests," laid the foundation for increased media access restrictions
across the United States.
Because of Pell and other precedent-setting cases, litigation is not necessarily
the best strategy in the fight for media access, says Alan Schlosser, managing
attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. "The
law in this area is very difficult. Cases must be chosen carefully."
The ACLU has strongly opposed the CDC ban and was an active supporter of
AB 1440. "This bill was positive and necessary. We have a growing prison
system with numerous documented cases of prisoner abuse," says Schlosser.
But neither the ACLU nor the mainstream media has fought hard enough for
access, and the opposition it has put up has been misguided, according to
Noelle Hanrahan, director of the Prison Radio Project.
After journalists were locked out of portions of the 1996 execution of William
Bonin--California's first lethal injection and third execution since the
1992 reinstatement of capital punishment--the ACLU, on behalf of the Northern
California chapter of the SPJ and the California First Amendment Coalition,
sued for total access to the CDC's executions.
"It's disgusting," says Hanrahan. "They sued for the right
to see the needle go into Bonin's arm, but not for the right to talk to him."
In any case, there are many prison issues other than Corcoran-style abuse
and sensational details of state executions that should be brought to the
public's attention, Hanrahan says. "Our nation's prisons have become
genocidal environments because of the gross mismanagement of public health
issues," she says. "Sex happens in prisons, drug use happens in
prisons--yet there are virtually no safe-sex or HIV education programs."
No Camera, No Story
Conspicuously absent from the access debate is the media's most powerful
member and the one most severely impacted by the ban--television.
If diligent, print journalists, while denied face-to-face interviews with
specific inmates, are able to gain access through phone calls and visiting
hours. The CDC's prohibition on broadcast equipment, however, bars television
journalists all together--no camera, no story. Yet while the California Broadcasters
Association backed AB 1440, the industry as a whole has applied barely a
fraction of its considerable corporate muscle to the issue of access.
Ever loyal to the "if it bleeds, it leads" motto, television coverage
of our criminal justice system remains focused on the sensational. According
to a Rocky Mountain Media Watch report, local news programs allot 30 percent
of their air time to bloody crime reports and none to coverage of the prisoner
Those journalists who do attempt to do investigative work on prison issues
often receive little support from their superiors. "Aggressive investigative
reporting that attacks people in power is not rewarded by editors of major
news institutions," notes Hanrahan.
They may also be targeted by state officials. Sussman, who co-wrote SB 434
and testified before the Assembly on behalf of AB 1440, was attacked by state
attorneys earlier this year. The California attorney general's office deposed
Sussman in connection with a former inmate's civil suit against the CDC and
subpoenaed his confidential notes and records--including a contract with Harper's magazine
for an upcoming article about prisons. Sussman believes the attorney general's
intent was, at least in part, to harass and intimidate him.
"I was asked questions that had no relevance to the case--blatantly
political questions like, 'Is it a fair characterization to say that you
helped guide the Kopp legislation [SB 434] through the house?'" says
The print media rallied to Sussman's defense, with most major papers in
Northern California running editorials or stories. Sussman refused to forfeit
any documents, and--after two depositions and 14 hours of testimony--state
attorneys eventually backed down.
Media access restrictions, however, are designed not only to keep the media
and the public in the dark about prisons, but also to silence and punish
inmates who dare to talk to the press. And unfortunately, those behind bars
don't have Sussman's connections (he's a former editor of the San Francisco
Shearwood Fleming and Charles Ervin each spent 44 days in the hole for "impugning
the credibility" of CMT Blues, a San Diego prison industry program.
The two allegedly told the news media that they were forced to replace "Made
in Honduras" labels on privately manufactured T-shirts with "Made
in the USA" labels as part of their duties at the prison's garment sewing
Laura Castaneda, the KGTV (Channel 10, San Diego) reporter who broke the
label-switching story, said her "source" was a non-inmate whose
identity she would not reveal. Formal charges were never filed against either
inmate and both were eventually released from solitary confinement and transferred
to separate prisons. The CDC's ban makes interviews with either prisoner
difficult to obtain.
This is not to say the prison officials are completely opposed to media
coverage. On the contrary, they are as cognizant of the media's potential
as a public relations vehicle as they are of its power to expose abuse. Mark
Carnopis, information officer for Idaho's correctional facilities, responded
to an SPJ survey question about the criteria for granting access by writing, "We
look for compelling reasons why the interview should take place. How will
the interview benefit the department?"
Prison officials and tough-on-crime politicians have become increasingly
adept at using the media to garner public support for increased prison spending.
Steve Rigg, a whistle-blowing former guard pivotal in the exposure of the
Corcoran atrocities, believes that much of Corcoran's violence was deliberately
engineered to convince the public of the CDC's need for more money.
Getting the Word Out
There are journalists who don't need to circumvent media access bans--they're
already inside. Dan Pens and Paul Wright, two Washington state convicts,
edit and publish Prison Legal News. In circulation since 1990, PLN covers
prison-related news and legal decisions.
PLN's insider perspective and hard-hitting journalism make it an
invaluable resource for criminal defense lawyers, prisoner rights activists,
and outside journalists. Pens and Wright, together with Daniel Burton-Rose,
have compiled a selection of PLN articles in the book The Celling
of America: An Inside Look at the U.S. Prison Industry.
PLN journalists do more than chronicle the increasingly cruel and
vindictive nature of America's criminal justice system--they make connections
between what goes on behind cell doors and what goes on beyond them, broadening
the usually narrow crime debate.
Davis justified his veto of AB 1440 by saying the bill was "inconsistent
with the national trend to reduce, not expand, rights of prisoners," and
that its passage would provide "celebrity to convicts."
But prisoner rights activists don't think it's celebrity criminals that
prison authorities and politicians are worried about. Rather, it's inmates
who might expose the deplorable conditions inside U.S. prisons--people like
Pens, Wright, and 17-year death row veteran Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Hours before the first of a series of commentaries by Abu-Jamal--radio journalist
and former Black Panther--was to be broadcast in 1994, National Public Radio
caved in to pressure from the Fraternal Order of Police and then-Sen. Bob
Dole and canceled the program. Ten of Abu-Jamal's taped essays remain locked
in NPR vaults.
Hanrahan, producer of Abu-Jamal's radio commentaries, says that while Pennsylvania's
Department of Corrections had one of the country's more open media access
policies in the early '90s, prison authorities were still successful at shutting
down access to Abu-Jamal on numerous occasions.
According to the SPJ's Access to Prisons Report, Hanrahan's experience is
not unique to Pennsylvania. In correctional institutions across the country
there are major discrepancies between policy and practice. Of the 39 states
that allowed inmate interviews in 1996, most had broad "security concern" clauses
that made access subject to the discretion of prison officials. The SPJ report
found that while Idaho's written policy, for example, allows face-to-face
interviews, corrections director James Spalding had not granted a prisoner
interview since his 1993 appointment.
In Abu-Jamal's case, the courts ruled the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections'
denial of access unconstitutional on the grounds that Abu-Jamal was being
unfairly targeted. Pennsylvania lawmakers responded in 1996 by passing the "Mumia
Law"--a California-style blanket ban on face-to-face prisoner interviews.
The Prison Radio Project recorded a new set of commentaries by Abu-Jamal
just days before the Pennsylvania ban went into effect. The recordings have
aired nationally on Pacifica Radio and been compiled on a CD titled All
Abu-Jamal, who twice a month uses his ten-minute weekly phone access to
call Pacifica's Democracy Now program, has also published two compilations
of essays, Live From Death Row and Death Blossoms.
In addition to humanizing death row inmates, Abu-Jamal's commentaries--like
the journalism of Pens and Wright--offer a powerful political critique
of the prison industrial complex and the racist, classist system that
spawned it. Such critiques deserve to be heard, and the mainstream media
should not only seek access more vigorously--it should also grant space and
air time to prisoner journalists.