By Jessica Pupovac
Many states make it extremely difficult for journalists to visit their prisons, interview inmates and report with any regularity or authority on what goes on inside America’s prison system.
Take the case of Illinois.
In March, after hearing reports of black mold, insect and vermin infestations, and busted-out windows in Vienna Correctional Center, a minimum-security prison in the southernmost tip of Illinois, criminal justice and courts reporter Rob Wildeboer of Public Radio station WBEZ in Chicago began trying to arrange a tour of the facility.
His request was denied by the Illinois Department of Corrections’ public information officer, the commissioner of the department and even the governor’s office. He reported on his efforts regularly in an effort to exert pressure on the state, but to no avail.
“It isn’t Club Med,” Illinois Governor Pat Quinn told reporters. “Prisons are not country clubs. They’re not there to be visited, and looked at, and toured by this, that and the other.”
It wasn’t until after lawyers took up WBEZ’s case pro bono and met with the state’s attorneys that the state caved—sort of.
It announced that “due to increased interest,” there would be media tours at a later date, although no cameras or recording devices would be allowed.
Then, before scheduling the media event, they allowed 25 community college students inside to tour one of their maximum-security facilities.
While the showdown in Illinois was particularly public and well-documented, it is nothing new.
Quieter battles are waged as a matter of course by reporters throughout the country attempting to report on how their states address criminal behavior, treat inmates, work to preserve public safety, and spend the roughly $74 billion allotted annually to the state and federal prison systems every year.
I recently completed a comprehensive study of state media access laws as part of my graduate work at the Missouri School of Journalism. I interviewed dozens of reporters, corrections officials and media liaisons.
What I found was a wide range of approaches to press inquiries, but one underlying theme: individual public officials, not laws or official policies, have the final word on how much the media—and thus the public—know about what happens inside America’s prisons.
And too often those individuals deny journalists access not because of security concerns, but because they fear the anticipated content of a story.
“These PIOs [public information officers] are exercising unconstitutional control over access to prisons and to prisoners themselves,” says Charles Davis, a media law expert and professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. “At some point, I think there is a very real First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment due process argument to make.”
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