A bill before the state Senate intended to make it easier to interview inmates in California prisons may sound like one to benefit reporters. In fact, it’s an essential reform needed to bring some public accountability to the state’s beleaguered prison system.
The prisons are the object of much controversy these days. The Supreme Court has demanded that officials reduce overcrowding in order to protect the constitutional rights of inmates to be afforded decent medical care. A hunger strike last year underscored tension within the system. Many inmates are placed in solitary confinement for long periods of time, with uncertain consequences to their emotional well-being and ultimate ability to reintegrate into society upon their release.
Despite that, California’s prisons are notoriously off-limits to the kind of scrutiny that is routine for most public agencies. Reporters are not allowed to request an interview with a specific inmate and may not follow up with an inmate they happen to meet while touring a prison. Those are senseless restrictions, nominally intended to prevent inmates from courting and receiving publicity after committing the acts that warranted their incarceration, but in fact more effective at shutting down scrutiny of prisons. Questions about living conditions behind bars, for instance, are difficult to pose and report.
Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) has sponsored a bill that would require prisons to allow inmates to be interviewed and prevent authorities from retaliating against inmates who granted interviews. A request could be denied if authorities concluded that the interview would endanger prison security or the physical safety of someone inside or outside of custody. Those are safeguards enough, and they have helped persuade wardens and correctional officers to support the bill, AB 1270.
Speaking on behalf of his bill, Ammiano has made it clear that its benefits would be widespread. “Democracy depends on freedom of information, and that means complete information about all our public institutions,” he said last week. “The lack of transparency jeopardizes the safety of prisoners, prison workers and the public outside.”