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Senate passes Prison Media Access Bill

August 30, 2012

by Emily Harris and Carlos Alcalá, CURB

On June 12, prisoners’ families and prison reform advocates demonstrated on the capitol steps in Sacramento to urge the lifting of the media ban, which prevents press access to report on prison conditions. They succeeded in persuading the legislature; now the bill, AB 1270, awaits Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature. – Photo: Urszula Wislanka
Our announcement posted here that Gov. Jerry Brown had signed the bill was premature, and the Bay View apologizes for the error. To urge him to do so, add your name to this petition, call Gov. Brown at (916) 445-2841, fax him at (916) 558-3160 and email him here.

Sacramento – The California Senate passed AB 1270 by Assemblymember Tom Ammiano on Wednesday, Aug. 29, sending the bill on prison media openness to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature. The bill would restore the conditions that existed before 1996, the year that state corrections officials cut down on reporters’ ability to report directly on prison circumstances.

“We’re not just worried about reporters,” Ammiano said. “The lack of good information is also a danger to the prisoners, the employees and the public at large. It was under these closed-door conditions that prison health conditions deteriorated to the point that the courts stepped in. When it comes to prisons, what we don’t know can really hurt us.”

“California’s prisons are notoriously off-limits to the kind of scrutiny that is routine for most public agencies,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in a recent editorial. The bill deserves the governor’s signature, The Times wrote.

Under current procedures used by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, journalists cannot request interviews with a particular prisoner to investigate conditions in the taxpayer funded facilities. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to investigate any events, such as the 2011 hunger strike in prisons.

Moreover, though reporters may interview people in prisons who are selected by prison officials, there is no way to conduct follow-up interviews to those encounters, nor is there a way to check whether a prisoner has suffered any repercussions as a result of interviews.

“We’re not just worried about reporters,” Ammiano said. “The lack of good information is also a danger to the prisoners, the employees and the public at large. It was under these closed-door conditions that prison health conditions deteriorated to the point that the courts stepped in. When it comes to prisons, what we don’t know can really hurt us.”

“I hope that Gov. Brown understands that lifting the media ban from our prisons can help victims like myself know what’s going on behind prison walls, improve conditions of confinement and save taxpayers money. We need to let the light in,” said Shirley Wilson from the Youth Justice Coalition in Los Angeles. Wilson’s son was murdered and she now volunteers with youth who are at risk of being locked up.

Jerry Elster speaks out in support of hunger strikers at a rally in San Francisco Aug. 1, 2011.
“The public has the right to know how our tax dollars are being spent inside prisons,” said Jerry Elster, an organizer with All of Us or None. “If the state officials have nothing to hide, then what’s the problem with reporters having more access to people in prison?”

“With passage of AB 1270, legislators have voted for transparent and accountable reporting of the state’s 32 prisons and the more than 130,000 prisoners locked inside their walls,” said Nancy Mullane, a prize-winning reporter and author on prisons. “With the governor’s signature, no longer will professional, credentialed, hard-working journalists be forced to interview whichever inmate the prison authorities make available to them. For the first time in more than two decades, journalists will be permitted by law to request an interview with an inmate by name.”

Following passage, the governor has until Sept. 30 to sign the measure.

“The public has the right to know how our tax dollars are being spent inside prisons,” said Jerry Elster, an organizer with All of Us or None. “If the state officials have nothing to hide, then what’s the problem with reporters having more access to people in prison?”

The bill is supported by the California Catholic Conference, the American Civil Liberties Union, the California Newspaper Publishers Association, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, California Correctional Peace Officers Association and more than 20 other groups. It is sponsored by Californians United for a Responsible Budget, the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, the Center for Young Women’s Development, the Friends Committee on Legislation of California and the Youth Justice Coalition.

Emily Harris is statewide coordinator and Carlos Alcalá is communications director for Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), 1322 Webster St. #210, Oakland, CA 94612, (510) 435-1176, emily@curbprisonspending.org, http://twitter.com/CURB_Prisons.

 

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