Photo by Ted Soqui

After an opening round that has proved him unpredictable, if not surprisingly conservative, Democratic Governor Gray Davis has flunked a test of his commitment to core liberal values of prison reform and press freedom.

That test was embedded in Assembly Bill 1440, one of approximately 2,000 bills generated during the last session of the Legislature and vetoed this week by the governor. Authored by San Francisco Democratic Assemblywoman Carole Migden, AB 1440 would have reversed state Department of Corrections rules barring reporter access to inmates.

Under current rules, journalists are prohibited from arranging meetings or interviews with individual prisoners, and prisoners are prohibited from sending confidential mail to reporters. Reporters are now allowed only to interview inmates they meet at random during tours of state facilities arranged by prison authorities. The Migden bill would have guaranteed by statute that reporters be allowed to meet with and interview specific inmates.

Surprisingly, Migden’s bill, which was strongly backed by the media and groups such as the ACLU, also enjoyed support from the 42-year-old California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), which represents some 28,000 officers policing 33 state correctional facilities. It also had no opposition — even the state Department of Corrections, which issued the ban on press access, refused to take a stand against the bill.

But Davis, apparently fearful of being labeled “soft on criminals,” waffled. Earlier this year he refused to order a unilateral revocation of the no-interview rules. Just before Davis’ Wednesday veto, a Davis spokesperson told the Weekly that “No decision has yet been made on the legislation.”

California’s ban against one-on-one interviews between journalists and inmates was quietly imposed as an “emergency measure” by state corrections officials in late 1995 after a spate of media reports and court decisions detailed physical abuse and mistreatment of general-population, mentally ill and high-security prisoners throughout the state.

Corrections officials also asserted that the star status some prisoners had attained as a result of sympathetic media treatment made the inmates harder to control. They pointed to the case of “Monster” Cody Scott, a street gangster who was profiled in a book while incarcerated at Pelican Bay State Prison. “We did this because we didn’t want to have inmates becoming celebrities and heroes,” one department official said at the time.

Journalists and prison-rights advocates challenged the so-called security measures, noting that the rules against sending confidential mail to reporters seemed designed mainly to protect officer misconduct. To department critics, the real goal of the regulations appeared to be, quite simply, kill the messenger.

For journalists the timing could not have been worse. Coming on the heels of the media feeding frenzy surrounding the O.J. Simpson murder trial, the ban was praised by both victims’ advocates and then-Governor Pete Wilson. In 1997 Wilson followed up by vetoing a bill, authored by former state Senator Quentin Kopp, that would have restored these rights.

Now, the endorsement of the Migden bill by the state prison guards association would seem to indicate that the political climate has changed dramatically. The CCPOA is one of the 800-pound gorillas that haunt the halls of Sacramento — last year the union gave a reported $2 million to assorted campaigns, including big bucks to Davis.

Testifying in support of the bill before the Assembly Committee on Public Safety, CCPOA legislative analyst Ryan Sherman said, “Effective and safe prison operations are not threatened by media access. For more than 20 years, the California Department of Corrections allowed routine media interviews. Such interviews were conducted under conditions as set by wardens and could include time, place and duration restrictions as well as limits on the size of technical crews. There is no legitimate reason for a blanket ban on media interviews with prisoners.”

Sherman expanded on those views in a subsequent interview with the Weekly. “This is a good bill for California,” he said. “We believe that the more access the media has to the state’s prisons, the more information and understanding the public will have about the stresses and dangers associated with our members’ jobs.”

Sherman added that his association understands the frustration and pain that victims’ families may feel when someone like Charles Manson is interviewed on television. “But we feel that monsters like Manson also serve as the poster boy for how tough a job our members have.”

“We also believe that any emotional pain caused by such interviews is outweighed by the need for public oversight,” Sherman said. “If increased oversight by the press results in the exposure of any ‘bad apples’ among our members, then so be it. We need to weed those people out of the system.”

“Quite simply,” Sherman told the Weekly, “it’s the right thing to do . . . When everything is out in the open, that makes for good government.”

That California’s prison system is worthy of intense public scrutiny seems beyond dispute. According to information on the Department of Corrections Web site, California’s prison system currently enjoys a budget of $4.6 billion. It employs 45,499 people, and it currently costs $20,758 to house each of its 162,064 inmates in its 33 state prisons, 38 minimum-security camps and seven facilities for incarcerated mothers. The state is also engaged in a massive prison-building program that will push its total budget up to $5.27 billion by the year 2002. That would top the expenditures needed to run the entire city of Los Angeles.

Recent horrific tales of inmate abuse and rape sanctioned by prison guards at Corcoran State Prison, along with revelations contained in a report released in July by the federal General Accounting Office (GAO), underscore the dire need for more public oversight of the state system.

The Corcoran tales, first exposed by the L.A. Times’ Mark Arax, have resulted in criminal and legislative investigations of guards and facility operations there. Separately, the GAO found evidence of widespread sexual abuse of female inmates in California, Texas and the federal Bureau of Prisons.

Specifically, the GAO found that women inmates lodged 117 complaints in California, with 22 of them sustained. At one facility, investigators determined that inmates were forced to perform stripteases for male guards.

The GAO also reported that the state is currently defending four lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct by prison guards, and had settled one lawsuit related to unlawful sexual intercourse for $73,000. California has failed to criminally prosecute a single staff member for sexual misconduct involving female inmates, the GAO found.

Although it’s the department’s own regulations that faced revocation under Migden’s bill, Department of Corrections spokesperson Terry Thornton said last week that the department had “no position” on the bill.

Thornton added, however, that department brass remain concerned about celebrity prisoners. “Restoring one-on-one interviews would also give prisoners more rights,” she said.

Terry Francke, the director of the Sacramento-based First Amendment Coalition, an organization working to protect reporters’ access to public information, said the Migden bill was critical because “legislation trumps regulations.

“The prison guards are supporting the bill because they know the security issues are bullshit. They also understand that some of the conditions inside prisons can get quite serious if they are not corrected.” This, continued Francke, was a key test of Davis’ attitude on public access. He added that there is little chance that the Legislature would override Davis’ veto.

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