Prison News Serv ice
Prisons Punish Inmates Because of "Negative" News
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
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.
Return to Prisons
Compliments of Proposition One Committee
Send Us Mail!Compliments of Proposition One Committee