Amid nationwide strike, media access to prisons is limited

The Lee Correctional Institution. Photo by Tim Dominick/The State Newspaper.

On a Monday in April, at Lee Correctional Facility, in South Carolina, a bloody brawl erupted. More than four hours passed before guards intervened; in the meantime, seven men died and dozens lay injured. The violence was so intense, and the sluggish response from authorities so disconcerting, that, starting August 21, incarcerated people across the country launched a peaceful strike in protest. In an effort organized by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, a union group, and Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, an anonymous collective, prisoners are refusing to perform their assigned jobs and demanding that authorities address a range of concerns—from little or no pay for prison labor to racial disparities in sentencing to the lack of voting rights for incarcerated citizens and ex-felons.

Coverage of the killings, and the strike, have been limited, and not because they aren’t noteworthy. Although prisons and jails can be found in nearly every community in America, journalists struggle to keep the public informed. “What happens behind prison walls—with public funds and in the name of public safety—is completely out of public view,” Jessica Pupovac, a reporter in Chicago, says.

Pupovac, who has worked with the Society of Professional Journalists to document media access to prisons in all 50 states, has found that, in many cases, authorities will simply avoid reporters they don’t want to deal with. “If they’d prefer a story not get out,” she tells CJR, “it doesn’t.” In addition to a complex network of state policies that restrict everything from the length of interviews to the pens and paper reporters can bring in, journalists say that the system is often unresponsive to information requests and that they must worry about retaliation against their sources.

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Without direct access, nailing down key details about the incident in April and the ongoing strike is an impossible task. The trickle of accounts from within Lee Correctional has conflicted with what official sources say. Emily Bohatch, a reporter at The State, the daily newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, has been trying to write about the riot that took place in the spring, but prison officers won’t answer basic questions about the timeline, including what time an ambulance arrived, or when a SWAT team was called. She has also been lodging Freedom of Information requests with the state prison system for documents on deaths behind bars; so far, she’s had no luck obtaining records. “As a journalist, it’s my duty—I need to investigate,” she says. “But there are so many barriers in the way, it’s so difficult, and it takes so long.” Lately, she has been calling Lee Correctional almost every day, asking if the strike has taken root inside; she’s been told it hasn’t. But from some inmates’ lawyers, she’d heard rumors that suggest otherwise.

Some details have emerged. Heather Ann Thompson, a historian at the University of Michigan, obtained cell phone videos of the riot at Lee. In an op-ed for The New York Times, she included information from the footage to raise questions about the authorities’ account of the events— guards had said that they took four hours to intervene because the scene was too violent to enter. Instead, the footage shows an “eerily quiet” dorm, she wrote, with prisoners wrapping a bandage for a man who is bleeding heavily.

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Last year, Thompson won a Pulitzer Prize for Blood in the Water (2016), her history of the 1971 Attica prison uprising, in which at least 29 incarcerated men were killed by law enforcement. During the uprising, there were reporters inside “because the prisoners insisted on it,” she says. But when officers came to take back the prison, the media was swept out. According to Thompson’s account, law enforcement shot 128 people, tortured many more, and engaged in an extensive cover-up. Even as the air was “still thick with tear gas” and you could hear gunfire, Thompson says, state officials told media gathered outside Attica “that something completely different happened than what really happened.” She adds, “Horrible things go on in the absence of the eyes of media.” The current prison strike is due to end on Sunday, which will be the 47th anniversary of the Attica massacre.

Thompson developed a number of techniques to get around stonewalling by prison officials and Freedom of Information denials—talking with incarcerated people over contraband cell phones and reaching out to family members over social media. But even with these tools, it can take a long time to uncover what is going on inside.

 

Prisoners trying to get word out risk retaliation. In South Carolina, where the riot took place, many ways of communicating with the outside world can result in harsh punishment. The Electronic Frontier Foundation reported that, between 2012 and 2015, hundreds of people in that state had been sent to solitary confinement for using Facebook; over a dozen were sentenced to decades in “disciplinary detention.” According to EFF, South Carolina prisons consider a day of social media to be a “Level 1” offense—a category reserved for the worst violations—which means that “an inmate who caused a riot, took three hostages, murdered them, stole their clothes, and then escaped could still wind up with fewer Level 1 offenses than an inmate who updated Facebook every day for two weeks.” (The South Carolina Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment.)


“I don’t want somebody to be tortured because of something I print,” Jared Ware, an advocacy journalist for ShadowProof, a website that covers abuses of government power, tells CJR. He recalls a chilling experience covering accusations against a prison in McCormick, South Carolina, where inmates were reporting that they were denied access to water. Ware reached a number of people inside the prison by phone and aired the interviews on a podcast. After it was released, Ware’s sources told him that officers were going through the facility, playing the recording and demanding that Ware’s interviewees be identified. His sources asked him to take the podcast down; he did.

Madison Pauly, who has been covering the national strike for Mother Jones, has been trying to verify details about what’s going on behind bars, including the extent of retaliation against those talking to the press. After strike organizers on the outside claimed active participation in Georgia, Louisiana, Ohio, and New Mexico, prison officials in those states declined to respond to Pauley’s questions. “There are strong incentives for officials to not want to discuss any unrest inside,” she says. “They want to portray it as less than it is.” Officials who do respond deny anyone is taking part, even if there is video showing evidence otherwise.

 

What makes the prison beat especially hard is that much of the stonewalling is, in fact, legal. In a recent piece for CJR, Jonathan Peters detailed how First Amendment precedent provides little help for journalists seeking to access prisons: although the Supreme Court has held a view that First Amendment rights do not end in prison, state and federal authorities are free to ban interviews between reporters and inmates, partially on grounds of security. State policies on media access vary widely, with some states limiting interviews to 15 or 30 minutes and others banning face-to-face interviews entirely. In some cases, it may take months for reporters to get on an inmate’s visiting list, and interviews may be monitored.

In practice, prisons have repeatedly curtailed speech and access for reasons of security. In 2007, Alan Prendergast, a journalist in Colorado, reported on documents—obtained through a freedom of information request—showing that the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility, a  federal supermax prison in Fremont County, had received 100 requests for media interviews since 2002 and had denied them all, often citing unspecified “security concerns.” (In a follow up article in 2015, Prendergast said that he was still unaware of any in-person interviews granted there). “When it comes to federal prison, the courts have deferred so much to the wardens judgement about what’s necessary for running the facility,” David McCraw, the deputy general counsel for The New York Times, says. “But in most cases the reason given seems preposterous.”

That’s driven some reporters to take extreme measures. In 2016, Shane Bauer, a reporter with Mother Jones, went undercover as a prison guard in a private prison Louisiana. “I could keep fighting these battles,” he recalls. “Or I could get inside, and really paint the scenes, see it with my own eyes.”

Jeanne Woodford, a former prison official, tells CJR that she believes many of the restrictions are excessive. Woodford, who was the director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, has hopes for a system in which reporters can enter a facility and pull inmates aside for an interview. But even proponents of reform draw a line when it comes to weighing media access against other state interests: In California, journalists can appear on visiting lists and tell prisons that they would like to talk to anyone in a given group, but they cannot single out an incarcerated person for a face-to-face interview. Woodford, who served as the warden of San Quentin State Prison, tells CJR that she agrees with this ban in the name of avoiding “sensationalizing coverage” of notorious serial killers like Charles Manson.

Often, the people in the best position to cover prisons are those who are currently or formerly incarcerated. Newspapers run out of prisons—from California’s San Quentin News to Louisiana’s Angolite—have a long history of testifying to the experience of incarcerated people. In recent months, however, some journalists have reported being retaliated against for writing while behind bars. Mark Horan, a public information officer at the Wyoming Department of Corrections, tells CJR in an email that “Wyoming inmates are not allowed to be employed by a news organization, act as a reporter, publish under under a byline or enter into an agreement with a media outlet to be published under a byline.”

For reporters covering incarceration, there’s a nagging sense that the full story will always be just over the horizon. “When I ask myself about what I don’t know, I am floored thinking about how many things could be going on—things that are pretty horrendous—that I might never be able to know about,” Nicole Lewis, a reporter covering the national strike for The Marshall Project, says. “There’s just such a big loss there.”

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Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the strike began on August 29. It began August 21.

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Alexandra Ellerbeck and Avi Asher-Schapiro are the authors. Alexandra Ellerbeck is the North America program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists. She previously worked at Freedom House on its Freedom on the Net publication. Avi Asher-Schapiro is CPJ's U.S. correspondent. Avi is a former staffer at VICE News, International Business Times, and Tribune Media, and an independent investigate reporter who has published in outlets including The Atlantic, The Intercept, and The New York Times.