Contacts: Ray Marcano, SPJ president, 937/225-2323 or email@example.com; Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chairman, 406/542-4400 or firstname.lastname@example.org
INDIANAPOLIS — A recent closed-court proceeding inside the walls of a privately operated prison underscores the need for media access to prisons.
On Aug. 2, two men charged in connection with the Aug. 1 death of a state police officer made their initial court appearances inside the Cibola County Corrections Center west of Albuquerque, N.M.
Zacharia Craig and Aron Craig appeared before Cibola County Magistrate Jackie Fisher, who read the charges and set bail for the two men. The county's magistrates have a year-old agreement with the prison to conduct initial appearances there, instead of at the courthouse in nearby Grants, N.M.
"This is an extremely troubling case, given the proliferation of privately run prisons," said SPJ President Ray Marcano, an assistant managing editor at the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News. "The public has a right to know how courts operate, and placing restrictions on the press limits public access to the proceedings. We urge prison and state officials to rethink this policy and make the proceedings open so journalists can inform the public."
Print and broadcast reporters who arrived at the prison to cover the proceedings were kept outside the facility. Under prison policies, visitors must ask for access 24 hours before entering the facility so they can be screened for security reasons.
"This is a classic 'Catch 22' situation," said Ian Marquand, SPJ's Freedom of Information Committee chairman. "Under this prison's rules, a journalist has to give a full day's notice to get permission to enter. But reporters didn't know about these initial appearances until the morning they took place, or the evening before, so they'd already missed the deadline to ask permission.
"Considering the significance of this case, some provision should have been made to have the media represent the public at the initial appearances," added Marquand, special projects coordinator for KPAX TV in Missoula, Mont. "Even a single reporter without so much as a notebook would have been better than having no journalist at all in that facility."
SPJ and its local chapters have been leaders in fighting for media access to prisons and prisoners. In recent years, many states have restricted or banned media contact with prisoners. Also, the increase in privately run, for-profit prisons has created new concerns about access and accountability.
Bob Johnson, the executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said, "It was a ridiculous flouting of the prisoner's rights and the public's rights. For a private prison to dictate what happens at a public proceeding makes no sense."
Last year, SPJ established an online listing of prison access policies in the 50 states.