News

Bill offering media access to prison inmates clears Senate committee

For the third year in a row, Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, is pushing
legislation that would make it easier for reporters to set up interviews
with prison inmates. The bill, SB 1521, cleared its first legislative hurdle
this week in a 4-0 vote in the Senate Public Safety Committee.

At the hearing, Romero argued that more media access was necessary for the
public to better understand the problems with California’s prison system.
“Right now, the budget of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
has ballooned to over $8 billion.” said Romero. “Yet we continue to see
fiscal overruns, we continue to see riots and scandals.”

Sen. Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, chairwoman of the Senate Public Safety
Committee, thanked Romero for reintroducing the bill. “Certainly taxpayers
have a right to know what goes on behind prison walls,” said Migden, who
herself carried prison-access legislation while in the Assembly.

Under the current rules, the department does not allow reporters to arrange
one-on-one interviews with specific inmates. To interview a particular
prisoner face-to-face, reporters must first write the inmate and then be put
on the prisoner’s list of approved visitors.

Once on the list, a reporter may only speak with a prisoner during regular
visiting hours and may be prevented from bringing writing or recording
equipment.

“It might sound medieval, but in some of the institutions they are still not
permitting the reporters to take in pens, pencils or paper,” said Jim Ewert,
legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

Romero’s bill is substantively the same as legislation that Governor Arnold
Schwarzenegger has vetoed each of the last two years. In last year’s veto
message, Schwarzenegger warned against “treating inmates as celebrities” and
any “activities that would glamorize criminals at the expense of victims.”
Schwarzenegger added that “a free flow of information from the prison
environment into the outside world has taken place under the current
policy.” The governor’s office declined to comment on the latest Romero
bill.

Media organizations have opposed the face-to-face interview restrictions
since they went into effect in 1996. The Legislature has passed several
bills to change the rules, but governors Pete Wilson, Gray Davis and
Schwarzenegger each have vetoed such legislation.

Last year, Crime Victims United of California removed its opposition to
Romero’s bill after she inserted a provision that would require victims’
families be notified at least two business days prior to any prison
interview.

Harriet Salarno, president of the Crime Victims United, said her
organization was “staying neutral” on the bill again this year.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) is supporting
Romero’s bill, which also is backed by the American Civil Liberties Union,
the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the California
Broadcasters Association, among others.

“The only time anyone pays any attention to prisons is when there is
allegations of misconduct,” said Lance Corcoran, a spokesman for CCPOA,
which backed a similar bill by Assemblyman Ray Haynes, R-Murrieta, last
year. “Pulling the covers on the prison system–making sure the media has
access–is in the public good. I would hope that it would dispel some of the
myths about correctional officers.”

Romero admitted that she had received no assurances from the Schwarzenegger
administration that the latest incarnation would meet a different fate on
the governor’s desk. But the issue, she said, was too important to ignore.
“Anybody who believes in a democracy knows that the foundation of a free
society happens to be the media, an independent body that can report from
behind whatever walls,” she said.

Romero added that the governor’s State of the State address, in which he
praised Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Montebello, for “her perseverance, her
stamina, her commitment” to a bill for six straight years, gave her renewed
energy.

“The governor has acknowledged that he appreciates persistence and we think
that one should be persistent in truth in government,” she said.


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