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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Prisons Not Only Keep Inmates In, but the Public Out

November 22, 1999|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.

--Justice Louis D. Brandeis

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If ABC's Ted Koppel had not been at Valley State Prison interviewing women inmates for "Nightline," he would not have heard their complaints about unnecessary pelvic exams.

He would not have heard women prisoners asserting, for example, that "it doesn't matter what you go in there for, he wants to give you a Pap smear. And if you refuse . . . he wants to throw you out." A cut finger or a chest cold, they said, the result is a Pap smear.

And if Koppel had not listened to these women recently, he would not have known to ask the prison's chief medical officer--a Dr. Anthony DiDomenico--about their charges. And the journalist--more importantly, the public--would not have heard and seen the graying doctor proclaim: "I think that may be wishful thinking on the part of some of these ladies. . . .

"This is a group of women that are isolated. And I've heard inmates tell me that they would deliberately like to be examined. It's the only male contact they get. . . . There's maybe some gratification on their part from the exam."

And if this exchange had not occurred, the Davis administration would not have known to yank that doctor immediately out of there and hide him in an innocuous desk job--far from any women inmates.

"This doctor will never have patient care again in the Department of Corrections," Koppel was told by the pelvic examiner's boss, Dr. Susann Steinberg. A subsequent department investigation concluded that the prisoners' allegations essentially were "unfounded," Steinberg later said. But a second doctor also was reassigned for "uncouth behavior."

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The "Nightline" series from the huge prison in Chowchilla ran for six nights. Viewers learned about prison moms, drug addiction, wretched failures and revolving doors. The series highlighted a small, successful drug treatment program that has lowered the recidivism rate for participants from 70% to 20%. But the program can handle only 256 of Valley's 3,600 inmates.

The public--even government--learns from reporters' interviews, especially when light is shined on a dark place like a prison.

Koppel's compelling interviews, paradoxically, were conducted shortly after Gov. Gray Davis vetoed a bill that would have restored reporters' rights to arrange Q-and-A's with specific prisoners.

The purpose of the current regulations, first adopted by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and continued by Democrat Davis, is to discourage inmate interviews by making them cumbersome and restrictive. Koppel--being Koppel--clearly got special treatment. And everybody but a couple of doctors benefited.

Reporters may interview inmates they randomly encounter while touring a prison. But they cannot set up an interview beforehand. And permission for tours is arbitrary. Recently, a San Diego Union-Tribune reporter was denied access to Corcoran State Prison--for no stated reason--while on the same day it was granted to a Canadian newspaper reporter.

A journalist can get on an inmate's visitors' list. But this takes several weeks. Even then, the reporter cannot take along a tape recorder, notebook or pen--only a good memory. Last spring, the Davis administration decreed that reporters must be furnished writing material. But in August, Mathew Stannard of the Oakland Tribune was denied this at Valley State. He found a pencil and some napkins to write on, but they were confiscated.

Inmates can call reporters collect. But the phone system is intimidating and annoying. Calls are monitored by guards and interrupted by recorded messages.

The rules resemble something you'd expect in a Siberian gulag.

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Davis claims--as did Wilson--that if prisoners are interviewed, they'll be glorified. Maybe that's because governors themselves see the news media as a tool to be manipulated for self-glorification.

In vetoing the interview bill, by Assemblywoman Carole Migden (D-San Francisco), Davis declared: "The purpose of incarceration is punishment and deterrence. It is not to provide additional celebrity to convicts . . . thereby causing further pain to the victims and their loved ones." Both governors are tight with crime victims groups.

Don Novey, president of the guards union, which spent $2 million to help elect Davis, disagrees with the governor. "I'd rather have the public see these folks for what they really are," Novey says. "If [reporters] want to come into these poor miserable places, I welcome it. The press should be entitled to a full review. It's the public's money."

All told, $4 billion this year. The public has a right to know what's going on inside--whether any tax dollars, say, are going to doctors who think women are titillated by pelvic exams.

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