Prison officials in Michigan, Florida consider restricting media access

Thursday, October 7, 1999

When Michigan Department of Corrections Director Bill Martin agreed to a
recent interview with Geraldo Rivera concerning alleged sexual misconduct in the
state's prison system, he waited nearly six hours for television crews to set up
three cameras.

So when Rivera asked to visit one of the prisons, Martin declined the
request, explaining that lengthy camera preparations would hinder security.

Declaring that the prison system is in the security business not show
business, state corrections officials note that the Rivera interview may be the
last time the prisons grant open access to the media. Prison officials plan to
hold a public hearing on Nov. 16 to consider new rules that would give
journalists the same access privileges to prisons as the public.

“We're either unfair and don't allow the interviews or we do allow the
interviews and we erode the security of our prisons,” department spokesman Matt
Davis said. “So
what we're asking the media to do is live within the confines of what the public
does. The media can still go on tours, they can still get on visitation lists,
they can still get on phone lists.”

But press advocates say such proposals hinder their First Amendment rights to
gather information.

“Journalists have been allowed access to prisons since the start of prisons,”
said Herschel Fink, a Detroit lawyer who represents many Michigan news
organizations. “We have some terrible conditions in Michigan prisons. … This is
one more way to hide the truth from the public.”

Michigan stands as one of several states where government officials have made
efforts to restrict journalists' access to the jailhouse.

Last month, California Gov. Gray Davis vetoed legislation that would have
overturned state-imposed restrictions on news media interviews with inmates.
Davis said existing laws grant reporters sufficient opportunities to interview
convicts in person during regular business hours, through phone calls and
letters and through prisoners' attorneys.

Corrections officials in Texas considered a regulation that would have
allowed some newsgathering agencies access to prisoners. But they nixed the
plan, fearing that it would restrict legitimate press groups.

More recently, prison officials in Florida announced that they would propose
within the next two weeks a rule change restricting journalists' access to

Press advocates say the pending proposal in Florida stems from an Aug. 17
e-mail sent to Gov. Jeb Bush from a classmate of one of five college students
murdered by Danny Rolling in Gainesville in 1990. The author of the e-mail
complained about a recent interview with Rolling on a national television

Florida prison officials didn't return repeated calls for comment but have said that a rule revision has been
in the works for months. A public hearing is scheduled for Nov. 1.

In a statement posted on the department's Web site, Secretary of
Corrections Michael Moore said that while he understood the need for media
access to prisoners, the department needed to regulate the visits.

“With criminals committing notorious crimes, with the media eager to
publicize them, and with more attention being given to the plight and rights of
victims, we are obliged to review our policies,” Moore wrote. “The department's
responsibility to the public in general and victims of crime in particular is
paramount. That responsibility outweighs its tolerance for policies that — in
practice — allow virtual unfettered access to prisoners.”

But Bill Hirschman of the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale says prison
officials in Florida haven't shown where open media access to prisons has gone

“What really frightens us is that people and victims, with the best intent,
will be paraded in front of the public hearing and speak from an emotional
standpoint in reaction to something that hasn't posed a problem,” Hirschman said.

Members of the Society of Professional Journalists, meeting this week in
Indianapolis, passed a resolution denouncing efforts in Florida and elsewhere to
restrict access to prisons.

“The prisons are among the most closed segment of American society, and we
understand there is a reason why prisoners are segregated from the rest of
society,” said Ian Marquand, chairman of SPJ's freedom-of-information committee.
“But we don't believe that prisoners surrender their right to be heard. As
watchdogs, we want to know what is going on in this system that is using a
greater and greater portion of public funds.”

But Davis of the Michigan Department of Corrections disagrees that prison
officials there are attempting to close access. Instead, he says, the department
is trying to maintain security yet still keep open the lines of communication
between the media and prisoners.

Davis noted that prison officials received more than 100 interview requests
from news outlets around the world when Jack Kevorkian was imprisoned. The
prison directed calls to Kevorkian's attorneys, who then placed reporters on the
doctor's call list. The prison refused to allow direct interviews with Kevorkian
for security reasons.

“To accommodate one would be unfair to the rest,” Davis said. “To accommodate
all would be untenable.”

Davis said the new policy would offer no exemptions to the media.

“The media is not a special class. The media enjoys no more or less rights
than the public,” Davis said. “That's our launching pad. Now we say, 'If you
want to come visit a prisoner, get on the prisoner's list.'