A bill to increase both media and state official access to state prisons, county jails, and city jails was introduced to the Senate on Monday.
Senate Bill 254, authored by Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) would specifically reverse prison and jail policies across the state, including those by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), and would permit representatives of the news media to tour a facility or interview prisoners in person. Retaliation against an incarcerated person for participating in a visit by, or communicating with, a representative of the news media would also be prohibited as a result. In addition, all Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation facilities and county jails would be required to allow state officials to visit those facilities at any time and meet with incarcerated people upon request under SB 254.
SB 254 would also cover many parts of a similar Florida prison law, which the bill is modeled after, including allowing members of the media to use cameras and recording devices, prohibiting prison officials from monitoring interviews or recording them, and directing prison and jail officials to inform the incarcerated person’s attorney of record before a prearranged interview.
Current CDCR, County, and local policies date back to the mid-1990s, when then-Governor Pete Wilson signed off on legislation allowing the CDCR to restrict access due to numerous concerns over crime, security with allowing so many people in, as well as safety. However, since 1998, several bills have been attempted to let the media return to tour facilities as well as speak to more prisoners, with many coming in the wake of the 2013 California prisoner hunger strikes. While current laws allow the media to visit CDCR facilities with prior approval and allow unscheduled interviews with prisoners, they are restricted in the times in which they can visit and how interviews can be conducted, such as not allowing one-on-one interviews with specific inmates.
Senator Skinner wrote SB 254 as a way to collect more information about prisons, prisoners, and what their conditions are. In a statement on Monday she argues that the news media plays a vital role in how government operates, and that greater access to prisons would allow more information to get to the public and lawmakers.
“The news media plays a vital role in providing information to the public and policymakers about how our government operates. California used to allow the news media much greater access to state prisons, enabling us to learn more about prison conditions,” said the Senator in a press release. “But for the past three decades, California prisons have been among the least transparent in the nation. SB 254 will reopen access so we can collect more — and better — information about how one of our largest state programs functions. California prides itself on operating a transparent and open government. SB 254 will allow us to live up to that ideal when it comes to our prisons and jails.”
California News Publishers Association (CNPA) General Counsel Brittney Barsotti added that the issue is one of transparency, saying, “Increasing media access to jails and prisons is critical for transparency. Current regulations are so onerous that there is no meaningful access. This bill will ensure access that is necessary to shine a light on what occurs inside our jails and prisons. We cannot afford to be behind states like Florida when it comes to transparency.”
While some Democrats in the Senate and some media organizations have already come out in favor of the bill, there is some opposition as well. Besides continued security and safety concerns, many prison experts warn that the law could hinder prison officials from doing their jobs.
“If we can’t monitor or record interviews, then what if, say, the prisoner threatens to hurt someone like a guard or another prisoner?” asked Jaime Rios, a former prison guard and current security consultant, to the Globe on Tuesday. “We need to know that sort of information and have it on record and not just trust the member of the media to give it to us. Same with if they are planning something or even if there is someone corrupt or dangerous within the system.”
“More than that, allowing to people visit in areas not usually open to the press or other people, that has a whole host of issues that need to be sorted out. I know Florida passed this recently, but California is not Florida.”
“And the thing is, they’re acting like we don’t allow anyone into prisons. We do. You just need proper appointments so, you know, we can have the proper security for you. It’s already a transparent system. That’s what’s odd.”
SB 254 is expected to be assigned to committees soon.
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