To ensure accountability, the reporters who do take an interest in prisons need access. But policies vary widely from state to state. Some states are models of openness. In Rhode Island, for instance, journalists are not only allowed access, but are “encouraged . . . to visit correctional facilities and to report on programs and activities” as a matter of policy. And even the sorts of negative stories that have made prison administrators in other states wary of the press are there considered “a cost of doing business” in Rhode Island, according to Department of Corrections director A. T. Wall. “Most of what we do is behind walls and fences,” Wall says. “If we don’t make ourselves available to the media, don’t let people see a lot of what we do, we’re going to perpetuate a stereotype that we’re running dungeons.”
At the other end of the scale, according to freelance journalist Jessica Pupovac, who did a state-by-state survey as part of a journalism-school master’s thesis, are states like Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Michigan. Each allows occasional press access—Alabama’s Corrections Commissioner cited two recent occasions when the press was allowed to accompany the state’s Prison Oversight Committee on a tour—but in these five states’ written policies, openness, and transparency are “the exception to the rule,” says Pupovac.
Most states fall somewhere in the middle, allowing certain types of access but not others. California, for instance, does allow tours, but does not grant requests for interviews with specific inmates. Governor Jerry Brown recently vetoed a bill that would have allowed greater media access to prison—the ninth time a California governor has done so in the last 20 years.
Making the situation more complicated is the fact that the rules covering media visits are typically a patchwork of legislation, regulations written by administrators, and case-by-case decisions made by the wardens of individual facilities. Few states have official channels through which reporters can appeal if their requests are denied.
In the case of WBEZ, “we went through all the proper channels,” says Cate Cahan, the editor who worked with Wildeboer. “We want to do things properly.” WBEZ submitted to the press office a request to tour two facilities, and was dismissed via email. When the journalists appealed to the governor’s office, they were again dismissed, in one line. Stonewalled, Wildeboer did what reporting he could from the outside—interviewing inmates who had already been released—and the refusals themselves became fodder for his work. “It becomes a government story; it becomes a transparency story,” says Cahan.
After Wildeboer’s seven-minute story about lack of access aired in August, reporters began to pepper the governor and the Department of Corrections with questions. “Security comes first, and it isn’t a country club,” Quinn told reporters. There are, of course, legitimate reasons that prison administrators might be wary of the media. It takes staff time to guard the journalist, for one. And “it would be so easy for a journalist on a first-time tour of a facility to freak out about something,” says Michele Deitch. For instance, during the day, inmates are rarely confined to their cells; unwitting journalists may panic when they see dozens of inmates moving around freely between programs and dayrooms and meals. “Journalists need to be pretty damn educated before they go in,” Deitch says.
Leaving aside safety considerations, the people who run prisons are in a delicate situation with regard to the press. “In corrections, the bad news is bad news, and the good news can be bad news,” says Rhode Island’s A. T. Wall. For example, Wall says, he likes to showcase educational and other programs offered to inmates at his prisons “because they’re consistent with our mission to foster a successful transition back into the community.” However, “when we do attract media attention, there can sometimes be a backlash of people who are offended that taxpayer dollars are being spent that way.”
In extreme cases, public outcry can jeopardize the program. “The public could get very up-in-arms—They should be breaking rocks!” says Deitch. The coverage “could end up being really counterproductive if it’s not reported on in a smart way.”
Press policies are often crafted with extreme sensitivity to victims, an effort to avoid reporting that might be perceived as “glorifying prisoners” or giving individual inmates “celebrity” status. “I try to put myself in the shoes of a victim,” says Kim Thomas, the Department of Corrections commissioner for Alabama. “If I was sitting in my living room and the person who destroyed my family and my life all of a sudden appears on TV—I don’t want to be the commissioner who does that.”