Stacked odds California is fighting a judicial order to cap its prison population to reduce crowding. (AP photo: California Department of Corrections)

When Rob Wildeboer, a criminal-and-legal-affairs reporter for public radio WBEZ in Chicago, read a report from a local watchdog group about conditions in Illinois state prisons, he was taken aback: “The stuff that they were saying—if true—was just horrendous.” The report, and his own follow-up reporting, revealed vermin infestations so severe that a cockroach had to be surgically removed from a man’s ear. Hundreds of bored and restless inmates—some serving time for nothing more than driving on a revoked license—crowded dormitory-style into dank, flooded basements. Six hundred men sharing seven toilets. So Wildeboer did what any good journalist would do: He asked to see for himself. “I expected we’d get in, to be honest,” he says.

Instead, he found himself at the center of a yearlong standoff, during which the governor of Illinois, Pat Quinn, publicly issued blanket denials to journalists seeking access to the state’s prisons, and then refused to sit down with Wildeboer—or any other reporter—to discuss this policy or its rationale. It wasn’t until WBEZ, with the help of two pro bono attorneys, threatened a federal lawsuit that the governor backed down, and even then only partway. Tours would be allowed, he said, but no tape recorders or video cameras. “It’s a step in the right direction,” says Wildeboer.

Prisons are an abundant source of scoops and stories for enterprising reporters. Life “behind the walls” is rich with drama and moral complexity, and departments of corrections are as badly in need of journalistic sunshine as any other government agency. But to cover them is difficult. They are, of course, closed institutions, meant to lock some people in and keep others out. Reporters often “don’t know how to get access, or they’re refused access and they throw up their hands,” says Michele Deitch, a University of Texas law professor who specializes in prison oversight. Even those who can get in must navigate a complicated relationship with correctional administrators whose goals and needs are often at odds with their own.

The skyrocketing US incarceration rate is by now a familiar story. Thanks to “tough on crime” politics and the War on Drugs, almost one in every 100 Americans is in prison or jail, a rate that leaves even China and Russia in the dust. And lockup does not come cheap. The average state spends almost a billion dollars a year running its prisons. The growth of prison spending in state budgets outpaced every other expenditure except Medicaid, according to a 2009 study by the Pew Center on the States.

Compared to other areas that siphon significant public resources, such as healthcare, prisons get vanishingly little media attention. Ted Gest, a longtime crime beat reporter and president of Criminal Justice Journalists (a nonprofit dedicated to improving coverage of crime and law enforcement), guesses there are a half-dozen reporters across the country covering corrections, some of whom have other duties as well. “It’s never been perceived as that newsworthy,” he says. “Most prisons, unless there’s a riot going on, [are] just not considered that sexy.”

Still, it is hard to overstate the importance of covering prisons. For starters: 95 percent of prisoners—more than 600,000 people each year—eventually go home. What happened while they were inside—whether they received job training, adequate healthcare, or learned positive life skills, or whether they were embittered, recruited into a gang, or made connections in the criminal underworld—has profound consequences for the society they return to. And the ripples extend far beyond the prisoners themselves: Almost two million children have a parent in prison—to say nothing of inmates’ parents, spouses, and siblings. Half a million correctional officers work behind the walls.

Beth Schwartzapfel is a Boston-based writer who often covers the criminal justice system