Sen. Skinner Introduces Bill to Restore News Media Access to Prisons
State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, today introduced new legislation that would reopen access to California prisons to the news media. SB 254 would also open access to prisons for state legislators and other state officials in order to provide policymakers with the information they need for effective oversight.
SB 254, which would also apply to local jails, is sponsored by the California News Publishers Association (CNPA) and co-sponsored by the California Broadcasters Association (CBA). If enacted, the legislation would effectively restore transparency to prisons and jails to the level it was in the state until the mid-1990s. It would also bring California back up to par with other states that provide both the media and public officials with greater access to their prisons, including Maine, Florida, and Rhode Island.
“The news media plays a vital role in providing information to the public and policymakers about how our government operates. California used to allow the news media much greater access to state prisons, enabling us to learn more about prison conditions. But for the past three decades, California prisons have been among the least transparent in the nation,” said Senator Skinner. “SB 254 will reopen access so we can collect more — and better — information about how one of our largest state programs functions,” said Senator Skinner.
“Increasing media access to jails and prisons is critical for transparency. Current regulations are so onerous that there is no meaningful access. This bill will ensure access that is necessary to shine a light on what occurs inside our jails and prisons,” said Brittney Barsotti, general counsel of CNPA. “We cannot afford to be behind states like Florida when it comes to transparency.”
“Regulations have increasingly closed our prison system to public scrutiny. When transparency is increased, trust follows,” said Joe Berry, president and CEO of CBA. “This bill will allow local radio and television stations to keep their communities informed on how their tax dollars are being spent.”
Until the 1990s, California allowed the news media much greater access to the conditions inside state prisons. News media traditionally could report on a wide range of prison issues, including the effectiveness of different rehabilitation programs, the quality and accessibility of health care and mental health care, and the use of solitary confinement and disciplinary practices — high-profile issues that have become increasingly controversial.
The reporting on prisons also provided the public and policymakers with key information about the use of taxpayer dollars. This year, the budget for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), which operates state prisons, is $14 billion.
In 1994, during the “tough-on-crime” era of then-Republican Governor Pete Wilson, the Legislature and governor gave CDCR the power to greatly restrict media access to prisons. Two years later, CDCR adopted some of the strictest regulations in the country, and they remain mostly in effect today, blocking most news coverage of prison operations.
Since 1998, there have been nine attempts by the Legislature to roll back CDCR’s 1996 regulations and restore media access to prisons. The Legislature passed all nine bills between 1998 and 2012, and each time the then-governors vetoed the legislation.
SB 254 would be the Legislature’s 10th attempt at restoring media access to prisons. SB 254 would also apply to city and county jails because state realignment of prisons allowed for tens of thousands of incarcerated people to serve their sentences in local jails.
SB 254 would also allow members of the Legislature, along with the governor and cabinet members, judges, and members of the Committee on the Revision of the Penal Code, to tour prison facilities upon request. This provision of the bill is modeled after a Florida’s prison access law, which is much more transparent than California’s.
SB 254 would also:
- Allow representatives of the news media to tour prisons and jails and interview incarcerated people during tours or in prearranged interviews — as long as the incarcerated person consents to being interviewed and unless the tour or interview would pose an immediate and direct threat to the security of the institution
- Allow representatives of the news media to use video cameras and other recording devices, which are now mostly prohibited
- Prohibit prison and jail officials from monitoring news media interviews or recording them
- Protect incarcerated individuals from being punished for participating in a news media interview
- Direct prison and jail officials to inform the incarcerated person’s attorney of record before a prearranged interview.
“California prides itself on operating a transparent and open government. SB 254 will allow us to live up to that ideal when it comes to our prisons and jails,” Sen. Skinner added.
Sen. Nancy Skinner represents the 9th Senate District and is chair of the Senate Budget Committee and the California Legislative Women’s Caucus.