Obstructing public scrutiny is foolish policy for a state prison system that is hugely expensive and beset by legal troubles. Legislators should approve a bill that would give reporters greater access to prison inmates, and provide the public with more insight into prison operations. The state should be pushing for more openness, not trying to avoid transparency.
AB 1270, by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, would permit the news media to conduct prearranged interviews with inmates. The bill would also ensure that reporters could use pens, paper, audio and video recorders and other newsgathering tools at those interviews. Current prison policy forbids setting up face-to-face sessions with specific inmates, mostly limiting reporters to interviewing randomly encountered prisoners. The bill passed the Assembly in January, but last month a Senate committee put the measure on hold. And the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation weighed in against the legislation this month.
Legislators, however, should not ignore the public interest in greater prison transparency. Inmate interviews can offer crucial insights into the workings of the state’s criminal justice system, free from any official filtering. Steps that help provide a more complete picture of state corrections are key to ensuring public accountability for the prison system and the people who run it.
Certainly California taxpayers have good reasons to keep a close watch on the state’s prisons. Corrections costs have bloated over the past 15 years, and now consume nearly 10 percent of the state’s general fund budget. The state plans to spend $8.86 billion on its prison system this year, more than the general fund will contribute to the University of California and California State University systems combined.
And the state’s record hardly argues for blocking public access to information about the corrections system. Legislators allowed conditions to deteriorate so far that a federal judge seized control of prison health care in 2005. A panel of federal judges in 2009 ordered the state to ease the crowding that packed prisons to nearly twice their intended capacity. And about two-thirds of those released from prison end up back behind bars within three years.
Corrections officials and the Department of Finance argue that accommodating more inmate interviews would increase prison workloads and costs. But legislative analyses put the additional expense between $150,000 and $300,000 annually. Even at the higher level, that amounts to just 0.003 percent of the corrections budget — an amount that hardly justifies diminishing public transparency.
Besides, the interview ban seems more linked to worries about negative publicity than any other concern. Corrections officials instituted the current rules in 1996, after reports about excessive violence and other abuses at Pelican Bay State Prison.
The Legislature should instead back the public interest and promote greater openness. A clearer understanding of state prison issues is not a threat to either the state budget or public safety.