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Solitary Confinement: Prisoners have felt isolated since restrictions on interviews with reporters went into place a decade ago.

Free-Speech Lockdown

California prisons are a reporter's nightmare. Will new legislation change that?

By Eugene Alexander Dey

AS STATE PRISONERS, we have long been portrayed by advocates of the tough-on-crime movement as a faceless and heartless amalgam deserving extreme punishment and permanent incapacitation. This unfair depiction has historically led to significant decreases in civil liberties, made easier in California because of an eight-year media embargo. The silence is deafening.

Emerging from the nation's toughest anti-crime movement is a Corrections Department racked by a series of scandals and leadership changes. While inmate abuses, excessive force allegations and staff corruption receive the headlines, bringing down the cost of incarceration has generated intense scrutiny from lawmakers unwilling to maintain status quo spending.

Inarguably, California's prison system is a quagmire.

Prison Media Embargo

With the heavy hand of corrections firmly around our collective throats, ending the media prohibition is the only way to change society's misguided perception about prisons and prisoners.

During the tough-on-crime early 1990s, the California Department of Corrections (CDC) was able to impose restrictions on the media in 1994. The regulation changed so that reporters could not interview prisoners face to face. They were still allowed to enter prison grounds and interview inmates randomly, as a Ted Koppel film crew did for 10 days in 1999 with 400 female prisoners at Valley State Prison. But under the new regs, if an enterprising reporter wants to interview a specific prisoner, he must be put on the prisoner's visitors' list, which means the reporter can't bring pen, paper or recording equipment to the interview. This enables corrections to free themselves from the prying eyes of the press—and the information injunction begins.

As soon as the regulation was enacted, civil rights groups and media interests lobbied to have it reversed. Three such attempts by the legislature were vetoed—once by Pete Wilson, twice by Gray Davis.

"This bill would allow journalists virtually unlimited access to convicted felons incarcerated in California state prisons," Davis wrote when he vetoed AB 1440 in 1999. "Moreover, this bill is inconsistent with the national trend to reduce, not expand, rights of prisoners."

Being an incarcerated writer, I find this rationale absurd. This mindless application of heavy-handed justice is an antiquated ideology, inviting those who wield the power to abuse their authority. Prison officials censor and restrict the free speech of the entire inmate population in order to suppress the rare individual with the wherewithal to contribute something to the flow of information to this society.

With smart-on-crime beginning to gain momentum nationally and the recall of Gov. Davis, a heartless prisoncrat, state lawmakers have again introduced legislation to undo the 1996 prison media restrictions.

Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) sponsored AB 1866, which is a tepid attempt to lift the face-to-face prohibition. State Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), who said the prison system was in a crisis in February, sponsored SB 1164, which will put an end to the 1996 restrictions by allowing reporters to conduct face-to-face interviews and restore the right of confidential correspondence. The ACLU and California Newspaper Publisher's Association have signed on to Romero's bill, saying Leno's bill is incomplete and comes close to codifying the corrections policy already in place. James Ewert of the California Newspaper Association says adding reporters to prisoner visitor lists is not enough. "Reporters have to compete with other people on the list, like clergy and lawyers and family members. There's a lineup of people outside prisons on Saturdays. It's a tremendous burden to try to get into a facility."

Such changes as the two bills promise might not seem like much to the general public, but from my vantage point this is the linchpin in the prison reform movement. Ending the information quarantine would force the CDC to emerge from the correctional Dark Ages of unmatched power and suppressed expression.

Systemic Incompetence

Under the banner of public safety, California maintains the largest prison system in a country that ranks second only to Russia in the number of incarcerated people per population. California's 32 prisons, 162,000 inmate population and 50,000 workers, 31,000 of whom are unionized prison guards, cost state taxpayers nearly $6 billion a year, an enormous societal investment that realizes a recidivism rate of 70 percent, roughly double the national average.

Emerging from the California prison industry is the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), the most powerful and influential special interest group in the state. The CCPOA has repeatedly been identified by the courts, the media and most recently the legislature for using its deep pockets to create a prison system void of accountability and social responsibility, culminating in the resignation of former CDC Director Edward Alameida in January amid allegations of covering up a perjury investigation at Pelican Bay State Prison. Alameida could still face federal tampering charges.

"The system has been running as a headless horseman without any overarching purpose except warehousing for at least 20 years," says Frank Zimring of UC-Berkeley, a renowned criminal justice expert.

From the perspective of the public, the CDC has become a shamed agency. From the perspective of the inmate population, it is an abomination. Our version of prison never makes it to media outlets. Adding insult to injury, the voice of the California prisoner is thoroughly suppressed when the media cites only the CDC's carefully prepared statements and press releases while succeeding in sanitizing misconduct.

Now that the CCPOA has been totally exposed, we have a governor who isn't susceptible to its corrupting influence. The Legislature, meanwhile, scrutinizes the CDC's every move. Change and reform cannot be far behind. To my amazement, a recent declaration of emergency by the CDC because of a spike in prison population has outraged lawmakers. And rightfully so. It's about time.

"It's simply not acceptable, especially with such scrutiny on corrections, to not inform members of the Legislature," Romero told the media, when she blasted the CDC.

State of Emergency

Welcome to the world of the California prisoner. While I was an inmate in the maximum security institution in Lancaster State Prison, we were placed under a state of emergency at least a half-dozen times over a two-year period. Yet, at that time, no matter how many letters we wrote to draw attention to the truth, the media embargo always succeeded in quelling our cries for help.

Lancaster's administration declared an emergency every five or six months to punish us for a wide range of real and imagined transgressions—most of which they created. It was during such times of institutional hardships that guards were allowed to trample over what few remaining rights we had left. These were hard times to say the least.

It is through repetition that prison officials realize the state of emergency is one way to relieve themselves of the burden of treating the inmate population within constitutionally bare minimum standards. These standards are so low they are in and of themselves the subject of much litigation. However, the California prisoncrats have for years used a number of tactics to make their jobs easier while making our lives miserable. The last thing they want is 160,000 inmates with the ability to confidently interact with the press. Prisons are horrible places. From them journalists can draw out the details of some disturbing facts.

This is why the Bush administration does not want its so-called prisoners of war to have access to lawyers and due process. Whether it's keeping a domestic inmate population quiet, or being afforded the unimpeded power to torture prisoners abroad, it's all the same. It's prison—and secrecy invites abuse. Just look at the images coming out of Iraqi prisons. To me, it's another version of the same old story: guards abusing prisoners.

As inmates, we welcome journalists back into the CDC. After 10 years of silence, we have a lot to say. The institutions of American media should decide who to interview or believe, not corrections officials who do not appreciate the importance reporters play in a democracy. How could they? Such ideals are instilled in the nation's institutions of higher learning—not while walking the toughest beat in the state.

To put my position into perspective, I have to hand this essay unopened to the very people I criticize. The potential for personal repercussions always weighs heavily on my mind. Without the protections of confidentiality, I express myself at great risk. Bring back the media, and let the correctional Renaissance begin.


Eugene Alexander Dey, prisoner No. P-37864, is serving a sentence of 26 years to life at High Desert State Prison in Susanville for a nonviolent drug offense. He is a freelance writer representing himself as he challenges his conviction and sentence. Metro news editor Dean Hinton contributed to this report.


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From the June 2-8, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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