Behind the barbed wire


Until 1996, members of the news media could conduct one-on-one interviews with inmates in California prisons, giving the public a deeper understanding of what went on behind the barbed wire. This did not please the administration of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, which was disgusted by the way some inmates abused this privilege to promote themselves -- calling in to radio talk shows to complain about their treatment, or appearing on TV to plug their books or movie deals. So reporters were barred from holding in-person interviews.

“Why should some guy benefit from committing a crime?” complained J.P. Tremblay, then assistant secretary of the Corrections Department. “We did this because we didn’t want to have inmates becoming celebrities and heroes.”

There’s no denying that in the intervening 16 years, few California prisoners have emerged as celebrities and heroes. Instead, we’ve witnessed what happens when inmates are locked away and largely hidden from public scrutiny. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that conditions in state prisons were so bad that they violated the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.


Under court order, the state is finally addressing the overcrowding problem by sending newly convicted nonviolent offenders to county detention facilities. But there are indicators that inhumane conditions persist; hunger strikes have arisen to protest the state’s use of Security Housing Units, where suspected gang members are isolated in tiny cells under solitary conditions that psychologists consider mentally destabilizing. Some inmates have been warehoused in these units for decades.

How bad is the situation? In truth, we don’t really know, because inmates in these units have no visitation, telephone or interview privileges. A much-needed bill by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) would change that. AB 1270 allows the media to request interviews with California inmates, including those in Security Housing Units. Officials at the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation could still turn down these requests for reasons such as excessive risk to the reporter or prison guards, but they would have to submit a written explanation for such denials.

This isn’t about coddling criminals, or turning them into celebrities, or helping to sell newspapers. It’s about shining a spotlight on a corrections system that for too long has operated in secrecy and shadow, and about reassuring the people of California that the prisons they fund are run in a professional and humane manner. Yes, there is a risk that some inmates will use interview opportunities to promote themselves, but the alternative is to blindly trust an insular government agency to do the right thing without even trying to hold it accountable. That hasn’t worked out too well so far.