Lifting Media Ban Would Help Shine Light in Prisons - Women's Foundation California

Did you know that reporters aren’t allowed to arrange in-person interviews with prisoners? The ban was put in place in 1996 by then–California Governor Pete Wilson in response to reporters and news tabloids requesting to speak with notorious prisoners. Governor Wilson said that this led to prisoners becoming “celebrities” and reopened wounds for victims and families of victims. One well-known example is Geraldo Rivera’s sensationalistic media coverage by Charles Manson, the famous serial killer and cult leader who was convicted of murder in the early 1970s.

Yet, according to Kim McGill, one of our Women’s Policy Institute (WPI) fellows, it’s questionable whether or not the ban has really prevented the sensationalizing of famous prisoners. You see,the media ban can hide the stories of inmates who are being mistreated, while “celebrity” prisoners continue to get star treatment. Forbidding reporters from talking to prisoners is making it more difficult to recognize and solve the growing epidemic of violence and abuse affecting prisoners and staff.

That’s why Kim and the other members of the WPI Criminal Justice cohort worked with Assembly Member Ammiano to introduce AB 1270 (Ammiano), a bill to repeal the ban on reporters interviewing prisoners face-to-face. While the bill would require the California Department of Corrections (CDCR) to allow the media to conduct in-person interviews with inmates, CDCR would still be able to deny an interview if it poses a threat to public safety. AB1270 is currently in the Appropriations Committee after having passed through the Assembly Committee and the Senate Public Safety Committee.

According to Kim, the violence and horrific conditions in our prison system are not only detrimental to the inmates; her research has shown that corrections and law enforcement officers also suffer. They experience higher than average alcohol and substance abuse, suicide, domestic violence and child abuse rates. If the media were allowed to monitor the conditions in the prisons, perhaps the public would face these tragedies and understand how and why California’s prison system is failing.

These unheard stories could give us better insight into the causes of crime and violence, so that we can figure out how to lower crime rates and rehabilitate criminals so that they can re-enter society. Ultimately, we’d have a better chance of correcting system-wide deficiencies and ending the cycle of incarceration that has hurt so many communities across California.

The state’s low income and minority communities suffer on both sides of the criminal spectrum – as victims and as prisoners. “Poor mothers are often burying a child in the grave one day and burying another child in prison the next,” said Kim. Furthermore, three out of four male prisoners are nonwhite, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

“AB1270 is needed to guarantee a more accurate and thoughtful view of Corrections, the state’s prisons and incarcerated people,” said Kim. “Media access is key to preventing further deterioration of our institutions and the maltreatment of both staff and prisoners. Hopefully, with the passage of AB 1270, we can shine some much-needed light on the California prison system.”

Learn more:

Prison Candor, an editorial published  in Press Enterprise.

Also see the following blogs in which we’ve written about conditions facing women prisoners:

Why I went to Prison

Photoblog: Visiting Women Prisoners in Chowchilla

Visiting Mothers at Central California Women’s Facility

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