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.”
On those grounds, Thomas declines every single press request to interview inmates. Rhode Island’s A. T. Wall has taken a different tack. “Sensitivity to victims, as my lawyers have reminded me,” he says, “is not a constitutional right.”
Meanwhile, journalists’ access to prisons is not a constitutional right per se, either. The courts have repeatedly held that journalists do not have any rights of access greater than that of the general public. Of course, they have no fewer rights of access, either. WBEZ’s threatened lawsuit homed in on that right to equal access. State prison officials “permitted school groups, church groups, the John Howard [watchdog group] all to have access to the prisons,” says Jeffrey Colman, one of the lawyers representing the station (John Howard’s reports prompted Wildeboer’s initial efforts). “I believe that’s the reason why the Department of Corrections caved in: because they knew that to give access to John Howard and not the media raised a significant equal protection claim under the Fourteenth Amendment.”
Reporters who find themselves barred from their local prisons, and who don’t have pro bono lawyers, still have options. “Prisons are functions of state governments, and state governments keep all sorts of records,” says Jenifer Warren. If you can’t get in, she says, follow the paper trail: state budgets, lawsuits, disciplinary proceedings, labor contracts, parole hearing transcripts, lobbying records, and state personnel board files—all are good sources of information. If you can’t interview current inmates, you can interview former inmates; talk to people who just got out, people on probation and parole, and their friends and family.
It’s worth the effort. Despite the human and financial reach of prisons, says Deitch, “What goes on in there is a complete mystery. It’s a leap of faith for the public. The role the press can play is to keep that light shining on what’s going on in prison facilities. They make sure that we get the prisons that we want and we deserve.”