“Invisible Punishment” chapter

(As a courtesy, the author requests that any published quotation from this essay cite its source as a chapter in the book “Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment,” edited by Marc Mauer and Meda Chesney-Lind  and published by The New Press in 2002.)


By Peter Y. Sussman

Prisons are surrounded by high walls — walls of concrete and razor wire, of course, but also walls of secrecy and stereotype. The public is protected from whatever physical danger might be presented by prisoners, but it is also “protected,” less legitimately, from the knowledge of what goes on behind those walls. The secretiveness that has come to characterize many of our country’s prison systems hampers the public’s ability to help shape government policy, to correct abuses, to understand crime, to evaluate prison programs and practices and generally to reassess our costly and ineffectual system of criminal justice sanctions.

It is the special role of the news media, guaranteed explicitly by the U.S. Constitution, to operate freely so that governmental officials and institutions, including prisons, may be subjected to public scrutiny. In recent years, the news media have failed to meet their responsibilities to explore fully the operation of prisons. Much of the blame can be placed on government censorship, operating in various overt and covert ways — well before the administration of George W. Bush upped the ante by putting an impenetrable blanket of secrecy over legions of detainees in its notorious terrorism investigation. But the news media themselves must share some of the blame; they have often indulged in distortion and self-censorship in their coverage of crime, prisons and prisoners, sometimes in response to presumed demands of the marketplace.

On the government side of the ledger, the problem may originate with the increasing politicization of prisons. No longer is incarceration an issue of public protection alone. Politicians at national, state and local levels have come to see “criminals” as one of the most effective political weapons in their electoral arsenal. The now infamous television ad with which George Bush Sr. furthered his presidential campaign at the expense of furloughed prisoner Willie Horton was hardly the first time a politician played “the fear card,” but its successful use in that instance undoubtedly helped persuade others of its effectiveness as a powerful advertising tool.

Coming out four-square against criminals is easy pickings; who could object? So in federal races and in state after state, politicians try to out-gun each other in their indignant denunciation of crime and criminals and in their passionate support for ever-longer sentences, sometimes for minor offenses that had been featured briefly on newspaper front pages. Once elected, the politicians must respond to the fears and expectations they generated when campaigning for office. At the federal level, crimes that had formerly been classified as local are “federalized” to fulfill extravagant tough-on-crime campaign pledges by candidates for federal offices. Because of such political dynamics, legislators at all levels “solve” more and more social problems with a single blunt tool: longer prison sentences.

In view of the superheated emotions generated by the electoral uses of crime, any thoughtful attention paid to prisoners themselves — by the news media or the public — becomes a politically charged issue. The shorthand word for such attention is “coddling.” It has become almost fashionable for local penal officials to vie with each other in dreaming up creative new ways to pander to public hysteria by further debasing prisoners and stripping them of their remaining vestiges of personal dignity. Chain gangs, tents in the desert, striped clothing are just a few of the ways in which already dehumanized men and women have been deprived of whatever individuality they had left and of the inner resources that might help them someday to make a go of it on the outside.

In the 1990s, as the politicization of crime increased and the resulting prison population boom began careening out of control, prison and government officials in the United States started tightening up on news media interviews and other contacts between prisoners and journalists — just as they had done in a previous period when prisons became politicized, in the early 1970s. Even in jurisdictions that didn’t tighten access rules for the news media, pre-existing regulations were often murky, leaving interpretation — and media access — to the whim of individual wardens or lower-level officials, many of whom seemed more inclined than formerly to exercise such arbitrary powers — even, or perhaps especially, when journalists’ interest focused on the actions of the very people who were controlling news media access. Prison administrators were granted, or usurped for themselves, a latitude accorded no other government officials to control the coverage of their own activities and misdeeds.

     Consider the following examples:
  • California prison newspaper editor Robert “Boston” Woodard was punished in 1996 for the contents of a letter he wrote openly to a journalist. The charge: “circumventing policies” — policies that didn’t exist in writing at the time he was convicted of “circumventing” them. Regulations issued by California prison authorities months later placed new restrictions on interviews with journalists but would not have prohibited letters such as Woodard’s. In short, the policies he was convicted of circumventing didn’t exist. The prisoner later sued the state Department of Corrections, which elected to settle the suit to the prisoner’s satisfaction after losing several preliminary skirmishes in court.
  • Two prisoners, Shearwood Fleming and Charles Ervin, were sent to special detention at another California prison, for investigation of “impugning the credibility” of a prison program — a garment manufacturing operation run jointly by a private company and the California prison system. Again, no such infraction is listed in prison regulations. The suspected “impugning” — which could also be thought of as “criticizing” a government program — was accomplished, the charge papers said, “by contacting the news media.” The prisoners were also told that they were being investigated for “a conspiracy to mastermind a sabotage effort to discredit[emphasis added] a joint venture project at this institution” and later were transferred to other prisons because of “the sensitive nature of the Joint Venture [garment manufacturing] Program and a negative impact the news media placed on this program.”  That “negative impact” could only have referred to a news report on a San Diego television station, broadcast shortly before Fleming and Ervin were sent to segregation, in which two unnamed prisoners, with voices disguised, said that prisoners in the garment factory had been ordered to remove “Made in Honduras” labels from prefabricated T-shirts and to replace them with “Made in USA” labels.
  • An attorney for a parolee — no longer incarcerated at the time — named Leslie White was told by California Department of Corrections authorities that he was being denied permission to publish an OpEd essay he wrote that had already been accepted for publication by the Los Angeles Times. In the essay manuscript, which parole authorities insisted on reviewing, White opposed “three strikes” legislation and criticized then-Governor Pete Wilson. The reasons given for the publication denial, which was reversed after White’s attorney threatened legal action, were that the article was “inflammatory” and “not in the best interests of the State.”

All these actions came during a period in the mid-1990s when abuses in the California prison system were the subject of a great deal of press attention and prisoner litigation. Among other issues of legitimate public concern, press attention and litigation had spotlighted the treatment of the mentally ill in the California prison system; severe psychological and physical abuse of prisoners at the “supermax” prison in Pelican Bay; an unprecedented number of incidents in which guards shot prisoners to death at Corcoran state prison; and harsh new criminal penalties such as “three strikes” legislation, passed by the state Legislature and later by the public, in a statewide initiative in 1994.

It was during this same period that the state Department of Corrections issued regulations restricting the ability that journalists had enjoyed during the previous two decades to interview specified prisoners face to face. The new regulations were designed to prevent journalists from conducting one-on-one interviews with willing individual prisoners with the use of cameras, tape recorders or even, for a period of time, pencil and paper. As a result, exposure of abuses was dependent at times on the ability of reporters to gain access to prisoners through subterfuge, through tenuous, monitored phone calls or through “visits” in which they literally tried to memorize prisoners’ comments, in the hopes of recreating portions of the interview later. Following issuance of the regulations, one prison reporter began taking a colleague with him when he visited an inmate, with each trying to memorize the prisoners’ words so they could try to reconstruct key portions of the interview after they ran back to confer in their car in the prison parking lot. Another reporter says he stopped at a nearby coffee shop to try to reconstruct his memories of a critical interview.

Even after the state’s regulations were clarified — under news media pressure — to permit reporters’ use of paper and pencils that they found in the visiting room and that were available to all other visitors, “freelancing” officials, imbued with the secrecy culture that dominates most prisons, tried to do on their own what the Department of Corrections had been persuaded not to do on a statewide basis. One reporter had a pencil and napkins confiscated from him by two guards on the grounds that he wasn’t an ordinary visitor — who would have been entitled to use them — but a journalist conducting an interview and taking notes on the napkins. A guard stood over this journalist for the remaining hour of his interview with a 61-year-old female prisoner. The story the reporter was trying to research concerned an important public issue, the system of parole for prisoners suffering from battered women syndrome. Without access to quotations and details of the woman’s complicated life story, the feature that this reporter ultimately wrote for his readers was “not the story it would have been,” he says. “No way. No way.”

Similar restrictions on interviews were issued in other states, some of them influenced by California’s example. Shortly after a court ruled that Pennsylvania Death Row resident Mumia Abu-Jamal could not be singled out for denial of press interviews, the state’s rules were tightened to restrict in-person interviews with all of the state’s prisoners. Michigan, too, came up with regulations restricting taped interviews with all prisoners. In that state, the regulations were drafted after a court ruled that ABC could not be denied an on-camera interview with a willing interviewee, Jack Kevorkian, at a time when regulations included no prohibitions on such interviews.

Other court cases have involved a prisoner in Idaho who was punished for talking to the news media about an HIV problem at his prison and a North Dakota prisoner who was punished for failing to obtain her warden’s permission prior to telephoning a newspaper reporter. North Dakota prison officials had previously taken no action in response to the woman’s complaint of a sexual assault by a guard. The prison’s media contact rule was repealed as part of the settlement of the prisoner’s subsequent lawsuit.

In state after state, prison officials who have tightened media access to prisoners cite not security concerns as they were once understood but the “celebrity” of prisoners, especially “notorious” prisoners. California prison officials have even established a tighter custody category based on the “notoriety” or “public interest” of prisoners; that is, the fact that the prisoner had generated “extensive attention by the public, media, or lawmakers” was used as justification to place the prisoner in tighter security. The worry was not the security danger per se of the prisoner’s contacts with the news media but the content of the resulting news reports and/or public reactions to them.

The California Department of Corrections justified some of its restrictions on media access by pointing to the need to protect the public — not “physical” protection in the traditional sense, it said, but the “emotional well-being” of victims and others. In short, information that had been available to the public through the press was to be restricted based on the possible emotional impact of whatever the press reported from the prison. Corrections officials thus took it upon themselves to safeguard citizens’ emotional well-being, and they elevated that self-appointed duty above the press’s constitutionally protected right to inform the public on the operation of public institutions.

As Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in an unrelated case: “The First Amendment directs us to be especially skeptical of regulations that seek to keep people in the dark for what the government perceives to be their own good.”

According to the publication Prison Legal News, in a move analogous to California’s, jail officials in Seattle have classified some prisoners as “ultra high security” and isolated them from contact with other prisoners based at least in part on the widespread media attention paid to their offenses — another clear attempt to punish prisoners based on their interest to the press and public.

Prison officials eager to squelch interviews often point to the need to keep prisoners like the oft-cited Charles Manson from gaining undue celebrity outside the prison walls (as if Manson didn’t arrive in prison with a lifetime’s worth of celebrity.) As the California Department of Corrections’ tortured reasoning goes, “Media interviews tend to glamorize crime and criminals by making inmates television ‘stars’ and thus undermine the severity of the penalties designed to deter crime. For example, sales of recordings and Tee-shirts concerning inmate Charles Manson have no doubt been aided by frequent interviews with this inmate.” The department did not provide evidence to substantiate its assertion of a linkage between post-incarceration media interviews and Manson’s celebrity, much less between press interviews and T-shirt sales. Nor did it offer any evidence that the “star” quality of prisoners like Manson undermined criminal penalties that deter crime. Again, the focus of the California Department of Corrections was clearly on the free-world social impact of whatever news stories might be written based on interviews. The graphics on T-shirts worn by non-prisoners would seem to any neutral observer to be far beyond the province of prison custodians.

There’s a further irony in the “celebrity” argument. One prominent prison reporter notes that officials at Corcoran state prison have sometimes gone out of their way to tour visiting journalists through the unit where their famous prisoners are kept. Said the reporter, “They took us by this protective housing unit, which is where all the stars of the system are. There’s Charlie Manson next to Sirhan Sirhan next to Juan Corona. And they take everybody through. And it’s almost like – it reminded me of being at the San Diego Zoo, and they took you by Ling Ling, the panda bears. … They’re just showing off; the prison system is showing off its stars.”

Interview restrictions in many other states are also tied specifically to the presumed content of the ensuing news story. Restrictions on content have long been considered a violation of the Constitution’s free-speech and free-press clauses, but in Connecticut, for example, journalists have been required to include in their written requests for access to prisoners “a statement of any perceived benefit to law enforcement agencies” resulting from the interview. One can surmise that journalists would have a harder time justifying interviews with prisoners who intended to “impugn” or “discredit” prison policies or practices, however corrupt. The Connecticut regulation carries an uncomfortable, Orwellian echo of the ruling that temporarily silenced parolee Leslie White’s expression of political opinions in California: “not in the best interests of the State.”

As part of the California rule-making process, the Department of Corrections characterized news media interviews as “a public forum in which [prisoners] can espouse their often sociopathic philosophies,” as if free-world citizens could not be trusted to hear and evaluate for themselves those “philosophies” that prison administrators chose to characterize as sociopathic. The argument betrays a disturbing distrust of the “marketplace of ideas” assumed by the First Amendment.

Many of the arguments for regulations to restrict interviews with prisoners are based ultimately on the fallacy that the purpose of prison journalism is to serve as a public relations vehicle for prisoners. In fact, journalistic interviews are necessary to assess the truthfulness of prisoner assertions or to elicit new information of public interest, not to simply pass along the self-interested and undigested assertions of a prisoner.

State restrictions on interviews and news coverage bear some rhetorical resemblance to the capricious rules of an autocratic third-world country, although the punishments for violation are not nearly as harsh. Compare them, for example, to the press law of the Democratic Republic of Congo. There, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the news media are required to back the government’s war efforts. The death penalty is prescribed for “insulting the army” (impugning its credibility?) and “demoralizing the nation” (not in the best interests of the State?). Scratch deep enough, and there’s not much theoretical difference between the concern that news stories might insult the army of the Congo and the requirement that journalists justify that their stories will be a benefit to law enforcement agencies in Connecticut.

Although journalists in this country are not subject to execution for their prison coverage, they are not immune from retaliation by the state. In an attempt to defend itself against a prisoner’s civil rights lawsuit, California subpoenaed all of this writer’s notes and other documents on the issue of media access to prisoners. Before the state capitulated and settled — without receiving the documents it had demanded — efforts were initiated to subpoena my e-mail provider to gain access to my electronic correspondence on the subject matter of this chapter, journalists’ prison coverage. I was subjected to nearly 14 hours of interrogation in depositions, with numerous questions focusing on my political advocacy, the nature of my future publishing plans and the subject matter of past articles. I was asked, for instance, whether I had “written anything for Pacific News Service, whether published or not, regarding then-Governor Wilson” and “what plans” I had to write about the lawsuit’s plaintiff, a prisoner, “in the future.” I was asked, “What is the subject of [my upcoming] book contract?” and “Are you involved in lobbying for or supporting any of that legislation” on inmate-specific interviews in California prisons and “in what capacity” was I “involved in lobbying for or supporting that legislation?”

Restrictions on press access to prisoners tend to be strictest where the resulting news stories could be of greatest public significance. In many states, in-person interviews with death-row prisoners are either forbidden or more restricted than those with other inmates. Such restrictions shut off one of the main vehicles for correcting abuses that have led to the execution of people who may well have been innocent of the crimes for which they were killed. Many other prisoners on death rows across the country have been exonerated perilously close to their execution dates, often through the investigative efforts of the news media. In such last-chance situations, it would seem to be wise public policy — if only to affirm the justice of the legal process — to encourage effective press coverage of potentially irreversible judicial mistakes that carry the direst of consequences. Yet Arizona, for example, orders that no interviews of any kind be permitted with prisoners after they’ve been moved to the “death watch,” 14 days before execution. Other states subject reporters to hurdles in reaching Death Row prisoners that are far more difficult to surmount than the restrictions placed on contact with prisoners in general custody. Is it possible that this higher level of restriction, like so much else that happens in prisons, is based on the increasingly political nature of the death penalty?

A number of high-profile mistakes have underlined the press’s important responsibility to investigate the possibility that the legal system has dispatched innocent people to death row. In November 1998, the National Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty at Northwestern University law school was attended by several dozen of the 75 formerly condemned inmates who, in the previous two decades, had been exonerated and released not only from death row but from prison. A little over a year later, when George Ryan, the Republican governor of Illinois, declared a moratorium on executions, that state had exonerated more men on death row than it had executed — an imbalance that has chillingly illustrated the extent of error that has crept into the criminal justice system.

The execution lottery that has led to so many erroneous convictions has been buttressed by new laws and judicial rulings limiting judicial appeals by the condemned. With avenues for judicial review thus constricted, the role of the press is all the more important in righting potentially fatal government mistakes. The news media are, now more than ever before, the court of last resort. With access to prisoners further restricted, the press is not able to be as effective as it must now be in its traditional and vitally important oversight role.

Yet one Virginia prison spokesman told a newspaper in that state, “Prison is not the place for media productions. We are under no obligation to provide a platform for inmates to profess their innocence or make allegations against the prison system.”

Aside from the issue of execution-by-mistake in individual cases, there are many questions about the validity and fairness of the death penalty, with mounting evidence that racial and other extraneous considerations sometimes determine whom the state puts to death and whom it doesn’t. It is vital that the public discuss such life-and-death issues with all the information it can bring to the debate, including information that only the condemned can provide. It is up to the press to fulfill that awesome responsibility, and it ought to be the government’s obligation to facilitate that process.

The problem of wrongful conviction is not confined to those facing the death penalty, of course. Onetime Black Panther Party leader Elmer (Geronimo) Pratt is a celebrated example of a prisoner who was imprisoned for decades on a murder charge before his conviction was overturned because of new evidence. It was confirmed many years after his conviction that the primary witness against Pratt had been a police and FBI informant who lied about that fact under oath and that prosecutors had withheld this critical evidence. After his release, Pratt won a multimillion-dollar settlement of his lawsuit for false imprisonment and violation of civil rights.

Pratt had long maintained that he was punished while in prison for his contacts with reporters who were investigating his claims of innocence. California’s crackdown on in-person media interviews surfaced soon after several investigative reporters began to take a close look at the questionable circumstances leading to Pratt’s conviction. These reporters say that the first prisoner with whom they were denied on-camera interviews was Pratt. Although no one has offered definitive proof, the reporters suspect a direct connection between the renewed press interest in Pratt’s innocence and the more general media restrictions that followed soon thereafter — as well as the official jeremiads against “celebrity prisoners.”

Critical concerns about prison justice go well beyond the validity of death penalty verdicts or other claims of innocence. The routine hostility and brutality of life in many of the nation’s prisons is also a matter of social equity — and certainly is of interest to the U.S. public and government when similar treatment is documented in other countries’ prisons. But beyond that, years-long subjection to the coarse cruelties of everyday life in prison leaves an indelible mark on the people whom we cycle in and out of the prison system and on their families. In this country, a disproportionate number of those people represent racial and ethnic minorities. The harsh, spiteful ways so many people are treated in our prisons degrades the level of our culture generally, even when prisoners don’t emerge so embittered by their experiences that a life of continuing crime and drug abuse seems the only feasible anodyne or “payback.” The public deserves to know about such conditions and understand their consequences while there is still an opportunity to change them.

Other issues of public policy that the press has a responsibility to investigate inside the prisons include sentencing policy. In California, the restrictions on press interviews were instituted at about the time the state enacted one of the country’s harshest “three strikes” laws. Many of those subjected to the 25-years-to-life penalty had committed petty thefts; others had lifelong histories of mental illness or retardation; still others suffered from debilitating drug addictions for which they could get no treatment. Enactment of the “three strikes” legislation was more than an issue of academic public interest. The penalty was presented to the public on a statewide ballot; it was an electoral issue. So the circumstances of the lives and crimes of people facing the penalty were legitimate components of the public decision-making process.

After passage of the California initiative, the effectiveness of that electoral decision — and possible modification of its provisions — continued to be an issue of importance for the voters and legislators of the state. Who was going to prison under the law? Were they the people the electorate intended to put away? And what was the effect of prison on them and on crime patterns? The news media cannot answer such critical questions without effective access to prisons and prisoners. Yet many reporters who tried to tell the stories of prisoners who ran afoul of the law’s inflexible, arithmetical criteria were thwarted by the state’s new, tougher interview restrictions. When reporters can’t get access to their subjects for interviews, the stories they would tell often remain untold. Policy debates are thus cut off from their informational roots. Several reporters have acknowledged abandoning projects on “third strikers” because of access restrictions.

There are, of course, many other reasons why citizens might want — or need — journalistically screened information that only prisoners possess. Issues that originate in prisons include the uses and limits of prison labor (the issue that got the San Diego prisoners sent to “the hole” for “impugning”). Some prisoners are uniquely qualified to enhance our understanding of corruption — governmental and otherwise — in the world outside; this is especially true of government officials who have been imprisoned for corruption and come to understand criminal justice issues from complementary perspectives, as both policy-makers and offenders. But surely it is in the setting of criminal penalties and the investigation of human rights abuses that prisoners’ information is of greatest use in a democracy.

One class of prisoners whose stories frequently cannot be told are those in heightened detention — in prisons-within-prisons often called “administrative segregation” but known colloquially as “solitary” or “the hole.” Prison officials say they place their toughest, most incorrigible convicts in administrative detention. Prisoners in these units have fewer visiting and telephone privileges than those in the general population, if they have any. Administrative segregation is often the first stop for those who have violated prison rules, but it is also a convenient place to “hide” prisoners who have objected to prison practices or had conflicts with staff members. In any other government institution, some of these in-house critics might be known as “whistle-blowers.” In the closed, airless world of prisons, they are written up for offenses and effectively isolated from fellow prisoners and the press. In some cases, the very offenses that got them sent to “ad seg” were contact with the news media to alert them to abuses or convey what, on the outside, would be constitutionally protected opinions on government programs. Such was the case with the San Diego prisoners suspected of “impugning” a prison program. Dannie Martin, a federal prisoner, was punished by a trip to administrative segregation for a story of his that I had published in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Restrictions on journalistic access are especially onerous for reporters working in visual media — television and documentary films. If there’s no film or videotape, there’s no story. And increasingly, in states across the country, there is no film or tape because of stricter access restrictions. Connecticut, for example, allows no videotaped interviews and no transmission by any visual medium. Pennsylvania: no still or video cameras and no tape recorders. New Hampshire: no cameras, tape recorders or “videotaping machines.” South Carolina: No recording tools of any kind, including pencil and paper. Similar restrictions exist in other states.

If restrictions such as those had been in effect in Texas, the public would likely not have learned the full story of the wrongful conviction of Randall Adams for the killing of a police officer. Adams gained his freedom after documentary film maker Errol Morris brought the injustice to public attention in his now-celebrated film The Thin Blue Line.

There are many stories that simply can’t be told without use of a camera. When 60 Minutes aired an interview with a convict witness to a killing by prison guards at Corcoran prison — a witness whom they could interview only because he was in protective custody in a federal prison, where on-camera interviews were allowed — a key component of the story was an official prison video of the shooting. The interviewee pointed to the scene on a monitor, showing his position and those of the shooters and the shooting victim, Preston Tate. As the producer of the segment later noted wryly, “You can’t do [that] in print.” No camera, no story.

One reporter who has written many prison stories says that the barriers set up by the prison system are “a major disincentive to doing these stories.” He adds that “This is a big reason why not many reporters are doing these stories.” But it is not the only reason. The news media themselves must share some of the blame.

Just as many politicians have stoked public fears about crime and prisoners to serve their own electoral interests, so the news media often cater to and perpetuate the same fears to serve their commercial interests. With the news media increasingly concentrated in a few publicly traded megacorportions (many of them owned by conventional entertainment conglomerates) and under greater pressure to meet inflated profit goals comparable with growth stocks, they give undue emphasis to “what sells” — and fear sells.

Journalists are often pressured, too, to be entertaining, to cater to the lowest common denominator in order to boost the circulation and Nielsen ratings that translate into higher ad rates. Again, the effect is distortion of their purely journalistic focus — sometimes through news writing that is more colorful or simplistic than the circumstances of a story warrant; sometimes through excessive emphasis on rare or minor crimes or criminals and sometimes through suppression of prison stories altogether.

Prison officials in California and elsewhere have latched on to the increasing “entertainment” focus of the news media, using it improperly as a pretext to justify exclusionary policies for legitimate journalists. In recent years, at least two highly regarded news magazines have been informed that prison officials consider them entertainment shows. The New Hampshire Department of Corrections turned down a 60 Minutes interview for that reason, and California prison officials informed a producer for NBC’s Dateline that it was shows like his — “the next thing to tabloids” — that led to the system-wide ban on interviewing specified prisoners on camera. It would be illegal to base news interview restrictions on a department’s assessment of the program’s content, so California and many other states — using such innovative logic as California’s “inmate television stars” theory — have chosen to hobble television journalists by denying them the use of the cameras they need to effectively report stories involving individual prisoners.

Despite the illegitimate use that some prisons have made of this trend, the journalistic distortion of crime and prison for the purposes of ratings and profits is a serious social concern.

One of the effects of the trend toward a journalism that doubles as entertainment is the commodification of many prison stories. The news from the joint tends to reduce to certain presumably crowd-pleasing categories that serve as easily digestible substitutes for uncomfortable realities and soothing anesthetics for fears of social dislocation. You have your shocking-escape story, your monster-behind-bars story, your barbarian-riots story. Most such stories are based on actual prison occurrences, of course, but they are isolated and sensationalized to satisfy the same kind of illicit thrill some people presumably get from “action movies.” For ease of identification, they make use of stereotypes of the good-vs.-evil variety. The ultimate message to the consumer is “I’m OK; he’s not.”

Entertainment values are inherently non-journalistic. In entertainment, what we read or hear or see becomes important for the feelings with which it leaves us and not for its accuracy or importance. And nothing satisfies more readily than the easily understandable, the simple emotional reaction based on familiarity. In other words, stereotyping – that convenient shorthand by which we falsify experience — substitutes for news judgment.

Prison stereotypes remove all nuance from prisons and prisoners, underscoring the comforting notion that “we” have nothing in common with “them.” They underline the menacing violence of prison life and ignore the nobility and pathos that also characterize many prisoners, traits that are familiar to many lawyers, teachers, pastors and social workers who have spent a lot of time in these remote institutions.

Academic studies have documented that far greater journalistic attention has been devoted to crime at precisely the time when crime incidence actually declined. Journalists sum up the trend toward increasingly lurid TV news coverage with the adage, “If it bleeds, it leads” (leads off the broadcast). Prison stories, however — especially those that involve policy and not violence — are sometimes considered too dull or difficult to obtain to justify the expense necessary to cover them. That perpetuates the perception of prisons as places defined almost exclusively by violence. The horror stories of prison are widely known, but you are less likely to hear about prisoners who organize a drive to raise thousands of dollars for local child-abuse agencies, as a group of convicts did at one California prison. Nor is it likely to be explained to the reader or viewer that a high proportion of the nation’s prisoners had childhoods of extreme abuse. Such nuanced human stories are of less and less interest to journalists, both in the raucous, high-voltage world of television news and in the newspapers that seem determined to compete with them by adopting the worst of their techniques.

Sometimes the inability to cover prisons with any complexity results from individual journalists’ inability to see them with clarity. Many journalists are simply unable to imagine ways of looking at experiences that are not common in their own class or race. Yet, increasingly, imprisonment is becoming a matter of race and class. The populations of prisons are as poor and “minority” as newsroom populations are comfortable and white. Newspapers and other media have learned through error over recent decades how to cover some “minority” communities — largely the communities that their readers and viewers will bump into in the normal course of their lives. But they don’t have the incentive to make comparable efforts to cover communities that are as voiceless, politically powerless and invisible as those in our prisons. It’s one thing to try to understand the motivations and interests of the people who demonstrate at City Hall and quite another to empathize with poor, black or Hispanic dead-enders tucked into isolation cells in remote, rural prisons (as so many of them are). Nor is it easy to engage with — or even find — the families of those prisoners, who likely work long hours during the week and then trudge onto an all-night bus for a weekend visit with their loved one.

One can learn far more about crime and prisoners by spending time in the endless lines snaking into the visiting rooms of our jails and prisons than by spending an equivalent amount of time poring over budgets, academic reports or computer databases. But you won’t find many reporters on those prison lines. Not unexpectedly, reporters tend to cover the kinds of people they know and associate with daily, and much of their information — whether from casual news tips or carefully cultivated sources — also comes from people with whom they are comfortable socially.

Other obstacles to effective coverage are more institutional than individual. Budgets rarely include money for a prison beat. Journalists spend an inordinate amount of time covering crimes that take place in an instant; far less time covering the next step of the criminal justice system, the court trials that last days or, at most, weeks; and they devote virtually no time or resources to covering the jails and prisons where the convicted are psychologically transformed through months or years.

Another institutional bias is the market orientation of most media outlets. They are, after all, businesses, and the bottom line is more important to today’s news media than it has ever before. They hire consultants to tell them about market share and targeted advertising niches, but they don’t generally hire consultants to tell them how to unearth social truths. There is certainly a generalized commitment to truth-telling, but except in extraordinary times, few are the top news executives who view that commitment as more than a means to a marketing end.

In short, whether through social habit, conscious policy or business focus, the news media often end up mirroring politicians’ self-interested stereotyping of prisoners and prison issues.

The bulk of the media-consuming public — its attention directed and its perceptions shaped by journalistic coverage — appears to be comfortable with the substitution of simplistic stereotypes for the complex personal and social dynamics of prisons and prisoners. It is far easier to barricade one’s fears behind walls of concrete, rolls of razor wire and reams of cliché than to deal with the realities of criminal experience in our troubled society. But the people society has put out of sight and out of mind continue to exist, and they are shaped — or warped — by the conditions to which we have relegated them.

Crime reporting is our new mythology, and sometimes it becomes almost Homeric as it weaves its tapestries of high drama to enthrall readers presumably bored by weightier fare. Take, for example, the mythic recounting of a girl’s disappearance that ran on March 4, 1996, in the San Francisco Chronicle, datelined Hanford, Kings County. The page-one story began:

“This is one of those small towns where nothing really bad is ever supposed to happen.”

So far, nothing about the missing girl. The story continued:

“Shady parks and playgrounds are easy to find. Schools and churches stand quietly around every other corner. Lemoore Naval Air Station, where pilots fly F-18 jet fighters a few miles west of here, seems to provide a sense of security and order.”

Now, two paragraphs into the story, there is still no mention of that missing girl. It’s all yarn-spinning atmospherics – a safe, upstanding rural enclave, protected from the dangers posed by modern social complexities and unstable outsiders. Indeed, this 1950s-model world is comfortingly protected by jet fighters.

It’s not until the third paragraph that the reporter of this story finally alluded to the reason the story was being written:

“So when another girl disappears off the face of the earth – the third in the last two years from this area …”

Later in the story, the reporter reinforced his idealized portrait, but this time with a discordant rhetorical twist:

“This community in the central San Joaquin Valley between Highways 5 and 99 is a prosperous town, surrounded by endless farms where cotton, alfalfa, grapes and dairy cows are raised. The snow-capped Sierra is clearly visible 50 miles to the east after the morning fog burns off.

“But residents clearly are aware that it is also surrounded by a world where life is sometimes cheap. There are four prisons nearby, including Corcoran State Prison 17 miles south, where Charles Manson, mass murderer Juan Corona and Bobby Kennedy’s assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, are housed.”

Needless to say, Charles Manson, Juan Corona and Sirhan Sirhan remained safely incarcerated and had nothing whatever to do with the girl’s disappearance. Nor did the prison itself, which is, as the story said, 17 miles from the town where the girl vanished. Those notorious criminals and their famed lockup are evoked to provide a kind of lurid frame for a story that is totally unrelated to them. In short, the story titillates rather than educates. It uses notorious prisoners and other mythic stereotypes to pander to and reinforce widespread public fears instead of informing with a valid sense of context.

In fact, the remote farm area where the girl’s disappearance occurred is no Eden. In some circles, it is as well known for its rural methamphetamine factories as for its cotton, alfalfa, grapes and cows. But that fact might have ruined a good yarn. Furthermore, the suspect finally arrested in the case was a resident of this devout town – the father of the victim’s 12- year-old playmate – and not an evil outsider preying on its 1950s innocence.

In ways such as this, journalists often uncritically accept distorted public attitudes and self-serving political agendas, and in the process further distort public perceptions of both crime and prisons. It’s an endless loop of misinformation and misunderstanding that’s as destructive in its way as overt censorship by prison authorities.

Perhaps both journalists and prison administrators could refresh their sense of their obligations to the public by reading the preamble to the Public Communications section of the policies and procedures of the Division of Prisons of North Carolina:

“Prisons are public institutions, operated at public expense for the protection of the public. All citizens of North Carolina have a right and a duty to know about conditions and operations of the State prison system. The governing authorities of this system desire to promote interest in and knowledge of our prisons and the care and treatment provided for the people in our custody. Our general policy is to facilitate access of the general public and mass media representatives to such knowledge by every practicable means, including visits to prisons and contacts with members of the State Correction Service and with the people in our custody. …”

No wonder some of the best prison reporting in recent years — such as much of the “Crime and Punishment” series aired on Nightline in the summer of 1998 — has been filmed in the prisons of North Carolina.

Whether the public is watching or not, it will be the public that must deal with the consequences of what happens in our nation’s prisons. And the only feasible way for most of them to watch is through the news media. They deserve better than what they’ve been getting — both from the custodians of these flawed institutions and from the journalists whose duty it is to investigate them.



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