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Prison Secrecy Policy Promotes Scandals

September 28, 2004

Roderick Q. Hickman, secretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, justified one aspect of the notorious "code of silence" that has hindered reporting on the current wave of prison scandals (letter, Sept. 23). Nearly a decade ago, the restrictions on interviews with individual prisoners were instituted unilaterally by the prison system. The California Department of Corrections has subsequently resisted every attempt to restore the system of news media interviews that had worked successfully for the preceding two decades and, indeed, had helped expose the rampant abuses.

Hickman recalled the specter of Charles Manson, saying, "We are not, and should not be, in the business of making publicity appointments for notorious felons." Of course, the state has no business acting as a publicist for any prisoner, but neither should it be allowed to frustrate attempts by reputable journalists to report on -- not publicize -- the operations of the prisons.

Effective scrutiny doesn't happen through the prison-led tours Hickman advocates, or in the "random interviews" with a prisoner whom journalists might encounter on such a tour. Without effective interviews, prisons will continue to be the incubators of abuses that end up costing the public more, both in security and financial burden.

This is the fourth time a California Legislature has voted to restore effective press interviews with individual prisoners. It's time for this governor to sign SB 1164 -- or we will all pay the price for continued secrecy.

Peter Y. Sussman

Society of Professional

Journalists, Berkeley

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