United for No Injustice, Oppression or Neglect

Prison Reform

Editor & Publisher


It's Put-Up-Or-Shut-Up Time For Governor Ah-nold on Prison Access 
Will Schwarznegger keep his promises of open government by restoring the reporter's right to interview prisoners? The bill's on his desk. 

By Mark Fitzgerald 

(September 16, 2004) -- During the unlikely whirlwind campaign that landed him in the governor's office of America's most populous state, Arnold Schwarznegger repeatedly promised to increase Californians' access to public institutions and information.

The number-one action point in what he called "The People's Reform Plan" was "Open the Government Up to Sunshine." He not only endorsed SCA1, the referendum proposal on this November's ballot to explicitly guarantee a right to open government in the California constitution, he said he would expand it. 

"I have one change to SCA1," he wrote in his platform. "I would eliminate the special protection from public scrutiny of proceedings, records, and deliberations of 'the Legislature, the Members of the Legislature, and its employees, committees, and caucuses.' There is no reason why the Legislature should be shielded from the antiseptic of sunshine."

But now Schwarznegger faces the first real test of his commitment to transparency: Is he willing to extend "the antiseptic of sunshine" to California's scandal-ridden prison system? 

For the third time in more than a decade, California's legislature has passed a bill that would restore the right of reporters to arrange one-on-one interviews with inmates in state prisons -- and to bring their notebooks, cameras and tape recorders to the sessions.

Astonishingly, that right was taken away from journalists in 1996 by then-Gov. Pete Wilson after more than 20 years of routine access to prisons. "It came in as an 'emergency measure,' though there was never any occasion of an emergency cited," says Peter Sussman, the freelance writer who has long been the point man on prison access for the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ).

Now, reporters must jump through a maze of bureaucratic hoops to get access to prisoners. First they must arrange to join the prisoner's official visitors list, a process that can take months. And once they are face to face with an inmate, the regulations say, reporters cannot take any of the "tools of their trade." That means not only no cameras or tape recorders, but no note pads -- not even their own pens and pencils.

"If you do get in," Sussman says, "you're lucky if you can find a pencil or a piece of paper in the room."

Opponents of lifting this system of de facto censorship say they are trying to spare the feelings of victims and their families by stopping the media from glamorizing criminals. In a state with perhaps more celebrity serial killer -- from Charles Manson to the Night Slayer -- this argument has some appeal.

But as the California Newspaper Publishers Association (CNPA) pointed out repeatedly, skeptical journalists hardly glamorize creeps like Manson -- and actually want access to better report on conditions in the prison. 

It's probably no coincidence that the "emergency" press blackout in the prison system followed, as CNPA notes, a series of revelations of cruelty to prisoners that included guards conducting "gladiator contests" between inmates at the Corcoran state prison. In these eight years of limited access, other scandals have emerged to the point that the very real possibility exists that the Department of Corrections will be put under a form of federal receivership.

It's no exaggeration to say that most Californians know more about what happened at the Abu Ghraib military prison in Iraq than they know about what's going on in the 32 prisons in their own state. 

Schwarznegger's corrections secretary, Roderick Hickman, believes the governor should veto the access bill. An article by Mark Gladstone of the Contra Costa Times' Sacramento bureau noted that on a recent tour of Mule Creek State Prison with Schwarznegger in tow, Hickman said, "I don't think that the media glamorization of some of the crimes that the inmates have played upon society need to be reported upon," he said. 

But press advocates say Schwarznegger has good reason not to follow that advice. "If Schwarznegger is smart," Sussman says, "he will separate himself from (the corrections department) because he's not responsible for the scandals that have happened. But if he keeps the secrecy going, and keeps the lid on interviews, then he will be linked to the scandals."

SPJ, CNPA and the other proponents of the bill ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to prison reform groups know that they face a tough precedent. Similar legislation was vetoed twice by the Republican Wilson and later by Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.

Schwarznegger has three weeks left to make up his mind about enacting or vetoing the legislation. Access advocates are hoping he keeps his campaign promises by signing. "He ran specifically on a platform of open government," Sussman says, "and of open access."

Mark Fitzgerald ( mfitzgerald@editorandpublisher.com ) is editor at large for E&P. 

February 23, 2003 
Freeing Minds of the Incarcerated

By Claris Campbell I appreciated the words of Barbara J. Brooks ("Former Jail Inmates Need Society's Help," Dec. 10, 2002), who described the value to society of using prison time to prepare inmates for when they are released. 

I do volunteer literacy training at Orange County Jail in Santa Ana. The inmate with whom I'm now working has not only attended my class but is also taking advantage of many other programs within the jail, such as computer illiteracy, high school equivalency degree preparation, parenting classes and substance abuse classes. 

The James A. Musick Branch Jail, near Lake Forest, known as the Farm, helps prepare those who wish to learn a trade. Inmates are also allowed to work on the facility's farm. Because of the greater freedom at the Farm, most inmates are lesser offenders. 

But we have to realize there are some people in any jail who present too much of a threat to enjoy less structured settings. I hate to think of them sitting in a cell, but potentially violent inmates require close containment. They also would benefit from using prison time to prepare for a return to society. And that is why I am a volunteer teacher in the county jail. 

My awareness of schooling programs in the jail began when I ran across READ Orange County, a literacy program. I volunteered for a few training classes and figured I was going to teach in a traditional tutoring program. 

Then we were told about the possibility of tutoring in a local jail. This seemed interesting. As a teacher, I had worked with a lot of tough street kids who were in my special education classes. These people need help. 

I eventually began meeting each week with a man from Guatemala whose aim is to speak better English. 

Before being assigned to the jail, I had to have a security clearance. Naturally, there is caution used in permitting civilians in as teachers. I was uneasy my first day. An employee of the Programs Department always goes with me and returns at the end of my class. I wear the badge of a community volunteer at all times while at the jail. And I was reminded of safety rules. 

I was introduced to my student when we reached the classroom. Once there, instincts developed during my years of teaching took over. I'm sure that volunteers who haven't taught school are comfortable too, because tutors receive training and inmates are given tests to determine the level at which instruction should start. 

I found out right away that the inmate assigned to me enjoyed current events. The Los Angeles Times became one of the key tools from which we worked to improve his English. I brought my copy from home and we read about such things as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Sherron Watkins, the whistle-blower at Enron. 

We also use a wide variety of other materials, including children's poetry, the maxims of Benjamin Franklin and magazines. 

He was able to print, having been schooled as a child, but I also taught him cursive writing. We were both amazed at his beautiful writing. I think he was quite proud of this. 

One-on-one teaching gives both people a chance to work at whatever level the student needs to. It is a gratifying experience. I had the pleasure of helping a bright man who grew up in an impoverished home and had only six years of formal education. The student has time for conversation and sharing with a person who shows interest in him as a human and as a student. 

My inmate student is unfailingly courteous. He thanks me each time I see him. 

There are no behavior problems that I know of among the men going to and from classes. Privileges are revoked when there is any lapse in discipline. And a camera lets the desk deputy keep tabs on the classroom. 

Perhaps the hardest thing was getting used to the physical nature of a jail. It is enclosed and not very inviting, despite being kept clean and painted. I must pass through locked doors and gates to reach my classroom. It was a startling experience at first because I've never been confined. 

But I'm glad to say that a couple of visits put an end to the uneasiness. 

I'm proud that Orange County gives inmates the opportunity for personal growth. Perhaps some will return to society with better living skills. Meanwhile, let's give credit to the system for all that is being done. 

Claris Campbell is a retired teacher who lives in Santa Ana. 


Prison Reform: Put Gov. Davis on Notice 

January 30 2003 

Prison reform seems to make sense to every rational person except our governor ("Correctional System Needs Correcting," Commentary, Jan. 26). You'd think that the ever-expanding budget gap would compel him to seek out cost-saving alternatives, but instead he proposes even more spending on corrections. It's no big secret that Gov. Gray Davis has been made possible thanks to a generous contribution from the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., which surely has a lot to show for its money in the way its budget was largely spared by the administration. 

In the meantime, billions of dollars get filtered through the Department of Corrections, and all taxpayers have to show for them is inmates coming out of prison more violent than when they went in, with little money left to spend on the true deterrents to crime: education and social services. It is high time the governor and others who push the "lock-em-up" mentality were put on notice: Taxpayers can no longer afford to keep nonviolent inmates incarcerated just to benefit the few who profit, most notably the folks at the California Department of Corrections. 

Sandra Austin-Herwerth 

Los Angeles 


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