America’s prisons are packed with important stories — stories of crime and punishment and other policy decisions that are rich with human drama and real-world consequences.
And what happens behind prison walls affects us all. Not only will the vast majority of the 2 million people currently behind bars eventually re-enter their communities, but with an annual budget of more than $74 billion, America’s state and federal prisons require vast economic and human resources to sustain.
But correctional institutions lie outside public view by their very nature and, too often, are kept from the watchful eye of media outlets by restrictive policies and practices.
I recently compiled and analyzed media access policies in state departments of correction around the country as part of my graduate work at the Missouri School of Journalism. I interviewed public information officers, wardens and several reporters who cover the prison beat.
What I found is a system that too often impedes journalists from reporting accurately, effectively or with any regularity on what goes on inside America’s prisons.
Forty-four states, upon my request, were forthcoming with their media access policies. But several of them — including those in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Kansas and Louisiana — offer few guidelines for granting or denying media requests, simply leaving it up to “the discretion” of whoever is in charge.
Gary Fields, who has covered criminal justice for several years at The Wall Street Journal, says the approach is typical.
“Each prison is a fiefdom, and the warden is at the top of the feudal system,” he said.
Some states, like Maine, might arrange for face-to-face interviews with inmates but reserve the right to terminate such conversations at any time should they stray from pre-approved subject matter.
In California and Kansas, written policies prohibit reporters from requesting to interview any specific inmate, requiring that any sources from within the prisons are hand-selected by staff. California’s corrections chief says the policy is in place so as not to make criminals into “celebrities,” but several legislators have tried to force reform. The sitting governors have vetoed all of them.
In Alabama, access is routinely denied. “Honestly, I don’t remember any times we’ve granted access in the last year and a half,” said Brian Corbett, spokesman for the Alabama DOC. “And it’s not unprecedented. From what I hear, other states are doing the same.”
While Supreme Court decisions make Alabama’s approach legal, several media liaisons find it counterproductive.
Richard Schmitz, the public information officer for the Alaska DOC, says he regularly invites reporters into that state’s facilities for tours and Q-and-A sessions with officials. Reporters and officers speak frankly off-the-record, and then follow up on any facts or quotes that might be used in a story.
“I think it is a good policy to do that from a public information point of view because you get the trust of the reporters,” Schmitz said.
The North Carolina DOC offers an online guide for reporters, explaining the basics of how things work in the department and how to go about requesting access.
Rhode Island, meanwhile, publishes on its website a manifesto that explains why media access is a good idea.
According to A.T. Wall, director of the Rhode Island DOC, “There are stories that can be very helpful about informing public perception about who offenders are, what they can become and what the mission of the corrections department really is.”
“Our experience is that if people don’t see what is really happening inside prisons, the imagination fills the void and people get pretty distorted ideas,” he said.
Wall and others contacted for the study offered several tips for reporters interested in covering prisons. Among them:
1. Before following up on a serious criminal, hot tip or potentially scandalous story, “try to have introduced yourself to the PIO, and maybe even the director, so that you have a relationship with them before things heat up,” Wall said. “In other words, strike while the iron is cold.”
2. Don’t misrepresent yourself or the story you are working on. “That gets out pretty quick,” Fields said, “and that would be the end of your prison reporting.”
3. Treat the staff with respect, including using their titles when addressing them (i.e., warden, officer, etc.).
4. Don’t forget about all of the other sources outside prison walls (e.g., defense lawyers, former inmates, family members) while you try to get access.
5. Report the story with the same healthy skepticism that you would use in any other setting.
6. Keep in mind that sometimes they really can’t let you into certain places for security reasons.
7. Make sure you know your lingo before you go (e.g., parole vs. probation, jails vs. prisons). You will get more out of your sources if you know what you are talking about.
8. Know the agency’s policy before you approach them. Ask for the rationale behind denials.
9. See SPJ’s Prison Access Guide for more tips and resources, including links to most states’ current media access policies.