Pelican Bay Prison in California.
Editor's note: On Sept. 30, 2012, Gov. Brown vetoed the media access bill. AFSC’s Laura Magnani responded:
“We can’t have a democracy without transparency and freedom of the press. The legislature has passed measures like AB 1270 over and over again, by significant majorities, only to face a veto by one governor after another. They are protecting the executive branch of government at the expense of the legislative, the public, and genuine good government. It is impossible to generate confidence in public institutions if they are hidden from view.”
The bill’s sponsor decried the governor’s decision, as reported by Californians United for a Responsible Budget.
Days may be numbered for ban on media access to prisoners
If signed into law this month, a California bill would enable the general public to get a more accurate view of what happens inside the state’s taxpayer-funded prisons.
The bill, passed by the legislature this summer, lifts a ban on media access to prisoners that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has imposed since 1996. Under the ban, reporters researching news stories about prison conditions and criminal justice issues can only interview prisoners selected by the corrections department.
That control drastically curtails the public’s ability to know what actually happens inside prison walls.
“Prisons are by definition closed systems,” says AFSC’s Laura Magnani. “They not only keep people in, they keep the public out, except under very controlled circumstances. This makes accountability extremely difficult, and makes the potential of abuse much more likely.”
Years ago, she explains, an official from the United Nations came to investigate extrajudicial killings in locked facilities in California, and was presented with selected prisoners to interview. The official declined, saying he was familiar with these tactics, often used by dictators to keep information away from the public.
In California, a few tenacious reporters manage to penetrate the bars, but most have had to settle for the official tours and handpicked “subjects” when covering stories, Magnani says.
When over 6,000 California prisoners went on hunger strike in 2011 to protest the conditions they faced in long-term solitary confinement, their actions were widely publicized by advocates on the outside, including AFSC, to bring attention to the abusive conditions.
Still, journalists could not request interviews with particular prisoners about these abuses.
Magnani, who has worked on these issues since the 1970s, served on the mediation team between the hunger strikers and corrections department officials to try to address the prisoners’ demands.
She was later invited by the Assembly Public Safety Committee to testify about solitary confinement as a form of torture, as defined by UN conventions.
It was during that testimony that she suggested that legislatively lifting the media ban could give the public a more accurate view of what was happening inside the prisons, and help to remedy the kinds of prison abuses being exposed.
The committee chair, Tom Ammiano, subsequently introduced AB 1270 to do just that. After passing both houses of the California Assembly, it sent to the desk of Gov. Brown at the end of August. He has until the end of September to sign it.