California Eases Rules On Reporter Access To Prisoners

By: Mark Fitzgerald California's prison system is easing some of its rules on media access to inmates, after eight years in which journalists complained that Department of Corrections regulations kept state prisons virtually off limits.

Among other restrictions, reporters were forbidden from taking their "tools of trade" -- including pens or notepads -- into interviews with prisoners.

Some of the regulations journalists most resent remain in place. The California Code of Regulations still prevents prison officials from arranging one-on-one interviews between a reporter and a specific prisoner. Reporters can only meet individually with a prisoner if the inmate agrees to add the journalist to his official visitors list, a process that can take months to arrange.

But in a memorandum to all wardens and prison public information officers, Todd Slosek, assistant director of communications for the prison system, wrote that journalists may bring "writing materials (paper, pencils, pens)" into visiting areas while meeting with prisoners, but that cameras, tape recorders, and other electronic recording devices remain prohibited.

The memorandum is dated last Oct. 29, but was first made public a week ago by the California Newspaper Publishers Association. The "revisited" policy memo "was generated after CNPA met with department officials to determine what, if any, regulatory or legislative changes the department would be wiling to support in order to provide better media access to prison inmates," the association reported in its most recent Legislative Bulletin.

In September, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who ran on a platform of open government, vetoed legislation that would have restored to journalists the right of routine access to state prisons. The measure would have overturned a series of restrictions on reporter access to prisoners that was imposed in 1996 as an "emergency measure" by then-Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, and subsequently embraced by his Democratic successor, Gray Davis.

The Corrections memo emphasizes both the prison system's "openness" -- and its ambiguity about giving any publicity to prisoners.

"While it may not be spelled out in the specific provisions attached to this memo, you must remember that the underlying principle of this policy is openness," Slosek wrote. "If a media representative wants to tour one of our facilities or talk randomly to any inmate, as long as it doesn't risk the safety and security of the institution and staff, they can and will be given access. We are not trying to keep the media out of our institutions, we are simply stating that the department is not in the business of publicizing, or assisting in the efforts to publicize, the actions of famous or notorious criminals."


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