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An inmate at the Mule Creek State Prison sits on his bunk bed.
A 15-year-old law, signed by former Governor Pete Wilson, restricts the press’s access to California’s prison inmate population. According to an editorial in the Los Angeles Times, it’s time that law was repealed.
At the time the Wilson administration insisted that doing away with in–person inmate interviews was necessary because too many prisoners were using the media to promote themselves, becoming celebrities in their own right.
Since then, the law may have had some unintended consequences. Prison inmates are no longer calling radio shows and touting book and movie deals, but there’s also not a lot of sunlight being shed on what happens inside the prison system.
Right now, conditions in California prisons are so bad that the Supreme Court says it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Inmates are overcrowded, abused and holding hunger strikes in an effort to draw attention to their circumstances. Meanwhile, the media can’t get behind the iron curtain to get the story.
However, that could change if a new bill from San Francisco Democrat Tom Ammiano is passed by the legislature. AB 1270 would roll back the clock, allowing for members of the media to request interviews with inmates, including those housed in high-security facilities. The requests can be denied by the Department of Corrections as long as they provide a written explanation for the denial.
Will increased scrutiny change anything in California prisons? If some inmates become media darlings, but conditions improve, was the trade-off worth it? Is it ever appropriate to restrict the media’s access to sources?
Julie Small, KPCC's Sacramento Reporter
Jim Ewert, General Counsel and Legislative Advocate, California Newspaper Publishers Association