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Crime & Justice

Reporters can't currently request interviews with specific prisoners; new bill would change that law

The "Secure Housing Unit" at Pelican Bay State Prison.
Julie Small/KPCC

A bill that supporters say would make California's prison system more transparent passed out of the Assembly Public Safety Committee Tuesday, its first stop on a potentially long journey. The bill, AB1270, would allow reporters to request interviews with specific prison inmates, which is prohibited under current law. 

The issue rose in public consciousness last year when a hunger strike began in the highly restricted Security Housing Units (SHU's) at Pelican Bay State Prison and spread to prisons throughout the state. Strike participants demanded better conditions in the SHU's and a change to policies that keep inmates in isolation cells indefinitely. 

During the strike, media outlets requested interviews with hunger strike leaders and other SHU inmates, but were denied access. After the strike was over, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation led a press tour of the prison, including portions of the SHU, and permitted media to speak with selected inmates. The inmates did not include hunger strike leaders. 

The CDCR has pointed out that they frequently allow reporters into prisons to roam and speak to inmates they encounter. Inmates in all areas of the prison system, including the SHU, can send and receive letters, though the screening process makes inmate mail less speedy than regular mail. Inmates elsewhere in the system are generally allowed to make collect phone calls. 

AB1207 goes to the Assembly Appropriations Committee next. 

For a more complete discussion of the proposed law, see AirTalk's May 23 episode