Prison News Serv ice
September 10
Sacramento, California

Prisons Punish Inmates Because of "Negative" News Stories

California prisoners suspected of contacting the news media to criticize possible abuses in a prison program may get sent to "the hole." and if the resulting new media story is "negative," the prisoner may be transferred to another prison. That's what happened to two inmates at a San Diego prison , a coalition of indignant legislators and media representatives disclosed at a Capitol press conference today.

Participants at the press conference called by State Senator Quentin Kopp revealed that two prisoners at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility were sent to Administrative Segregation ("the hole") and later transferred to other prisoners for "impugning the credibility" of a prison program, apparently because they were suspected of revealing to the news media accusations that prisoners, as part of their work duties, were required to remove "Made in Honduras" labels from T-shirts manufactured for a private company and replace them with "Made in USA" labels. Punished of the two followed a report on KGTV, Channel 10, in San Diego that quoted allegations from unnamed inmates about the label-switching.

As a California Department of Corrections (CDC) document put it, one prisoner was transferred -- despite the fact that there was no finding he did anything wrong -- because of the "negative impact the news media place on" the CMT Blues Joint Venture Program at Richard J. Donovan.

Legislators and news media representatives at the press conference are backing a bill by Senator Quentin Kopp, a San Francisco Independent, to assist the public to learn more about the operation of the state's prisons by overturning a CDC ban on face-to-face news media interviews with individual prisoners. The bill has cleared both houses of the Legislature and will be sent to the Governor after the Senate votes on Assembly amendments.

According to a CDC document distributed at the press conference, "Inmate [Shearwood] Fleming was placed in Ad Seg after it was discovered that he attempted to impugn the credibility of the CMT Blues Joint Venture Program by contacting the news media, thereby, disrupting the orderly operation of the institution."

Another document said the inmate had been sent to Administrative Segregation "pending investigation of a conspiracy to mastermind a sabotage effort to discredit a joint venture project at this institution . . . You [Fleming] are deemed a threat to the safety and security of the institution. . . ."

Charles Ervin, the second prisoner at the Donovan facility, was placed in Segregation for the same reasons. He was later informed that he was being transferred to another prison "due to the sensitive nature of the Joint Venture Program and a negative impact the news media placed on this program."

Neither prisoner could be contacted immediately by the news media to comment on their supposed allegations or on their subsequent treatment. In late 1995, the CDC unilaterally terminated the decades-long practice of permitting face-to-face news media interviews, such as those allowed in federal prisons and in most other states. Senator Kopp, the author of SB 434, the media access bill, called today's press conference to underscore the need to restore the news media's right to interview individual prisoners in person.

Peter Sussman, immediate past-president of the Society of Professional Journalists' Northern California Chapter, which is sponsoring SB 434, said that "when access to journalists and sincere criticism of prison programs is tantamount to a crime, a dangerous array of abuses is allowed to flourish in these secretive public institutions. At a time when crime and punishment are critical public policy issues, we should be working to increase understanding of the functions performed by prisoners and not outlawing effective journalism."

Sussman added that if there is malfeasance at the R.J. Donovan prison, "the problem is the prison's misdeeds, and not the fact that the public learns of those misdeeds. Bureaucrats' embarrassment is not justification for punishing prisoners."

The CDC has maintained that prisoners have other legal methods of contacting the news media besides face-to-face interviews, and it has cited Supreme Court rulings permitting some interview restrictions when alternative means exists for prisoners to communicate with the media. This is the first direct evidence that the department apparently considers "contacting the news media" by any means, in order to criticize prison programs, to be a form of prohibited disruption of institutional order. Similarly, the department has not previously admitted that "negative" stories appearing in independent news media are grounds for prisoner punishment.

Both the San Diego prisoners have since been released from Administrative Segregation, with no formal charges filed, and transferred to separate prisons because of their suspected contact with the news media.

Ironically, the reporter on the KGTV news program who revealed the accusations of label-switching at the prison factory says that she was never contacted by the inmates in question. But it was apparently an inquiry to the CDC by reporter Laura Castaneda that led to the punishment meted out to the two prisoners. Castaneda says she got the story from a non-inmate "source" whom she will not identify.

Her report included audio tapes of accusations by inmates whose voices were electronically disguised.

Participants at the news conference, in addition to Senator Kopp and Sussman, were a number of legislators who signed on as co-authors of SB 434, as well as Jim Ewert, attorney for the California Newspaper Publishers Association; Stan Statham of the California Broadcasters Association; and, Francisco Lobaaco, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Association.
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