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Getting the Inside Story

September 15, 2004

Freedom of the press may be a widely cherished principle, but under some governments, journalists are still struggling to gain basic liberties, such as the right to interview prisoners.

For instance, in California.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is currently deciding whether to change that, restoring journalists' access to prisoners by way of a bill on his desk that would let reporters schedule prearranged interviews with prisoners, as well as use reporting tools that are currently banned, such as notebooks, tape recorders and cameras.

There's no need to look as far away as Iraq to see how prisons develop a perverse internal culture when they operate outside public scrutiny. California prisons in recent years have been rife with accusations of grossly excessive force by guards and lack of basic medical care, to say nothing of failure to educate or rehabilitate criminals.

Even so, the governor's approval of the measure, SB 1164 by state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), is anything but assured. Former Gov. Gray Davis vetoed a similar bill. And in May, SB 1164 barely passed the Assembly. One stumbling block was a letter that Michael Neal, a deputy to California Department of Corrections Director Jeanne Woodford, sent the Assembly, arguing that the legislation "would return the CDC to a disruptive process where a media request for an inmate interview required removing that inmate from their regularly scheduled activity and providing the security and physical location for the interview." It's absurd, however, to argue that occasional media interviews would inconvenience inmates, who have virtually no scheduled activities since rehabilitation programs were gutted. Because lawyer and family visits are routinely accommodated, the state's security concerns also make no sense.

It's likely that Woodford, as the former warden of San Quentin State Prison, remembers how her most infamous inmate, mass killer Charles Manson, was a publicity hound who kept alive a cult of "admirers." The machinations of Manson and a few other prisoners led the CDC to adopt the overbearing media restrictions in the first place, in 1996. But fear of publicity is not enough reason to hide the prison system itself behind a ban on real interviews with prisoners.

Schwarzenegger campaigned on a promise to open up government. Just like making the DMV consumer-friendly or auditing state spending, Romero's bill would be a step toward that.

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