Until 1996, members of the news media could conduct one-on-one interviews with inmates in California prisons, giving the public a deeper understanding of what went on behind the barbed wire. This did not please the administration of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, which was disgusted by the way some inmates abused this privilege to promote themselves -- calling in to radio talk shows to complain about their treatment, or appearing on TV to plug their books or movie deals. So reporters were barred from holding in-person interviews.
"Why should some guy benefit from committing a crime?" complained J.P. Tremblay, then assistant secretary of the Corrections Department. "We did this because we didn't want to have inmates becoming celebrities and heroes."
There's no denying that in the intervening 16 years, few California prisoners have emerged as celebrities and heroes. Instead, we've witnessed what happens when inmates are locked away and largely hidden from public scrutiny. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that conditions in state prisons were so bad that they violated the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Under court order, the state is finally addressing the overcrowding problem by sending newly convicted nonviolent offenders to county detention facilities. But there are indicators that inhumane conditions persist; hunger strikes have arisen to protest the state's use of Security Housing Units, where suspected gang members are isolated in tiny cells under solitary conditions that psychologists consider mentally destabilizing. Some inmates have been warehoused in these units for decades.