An Examination of Press Access Policies for Solitary Confinement

Originally published in Solitary Watch on March 5, 2013

Journalists face serious obstacles to reporting on prisons–and even more to uncovering the truth about solitary confinement. (See James Ridgeway’s essay “Fortresses of Solitude.”)

Public oversight of governmental institutions, which can help to prevent corruption and abuse by those in power, is seen as a hallmark of an engaged, democratic citizenry. However, when it comes to obtaining information about individuals kept in solitary confinement, the press, and by extension the public, are often kept in the dark.

The Supreme Court ruled, in Pell v. Procunier, that the First Amendment does not guarantee the press special access to prisons beyond what is generally afforded the public. The Court reasoned that since other methods of communication feasibly exist, like letter writing, freedom of the press is not compromised by even severe limitations on access to prisons and prisoners. Suffice to say, these barriers to entry and examination, involving layers of bureaucracy as well as outright bans, help to minimize investigative inquiry and avoid close scrutiny of prison practices.

The Society for Professional Journalists recently published a study by Jessica Pupovac of press access policies to prisons in general, which vary greatly from state to state. Policies related to solitary confinement tend to be even more restrictive, and even more variable.

In an investigation of the prison systems with the largest numbers of prisoners in solitary confinement, Solitary Watch has compiled a brief summary of some notable differences and takeaways between the states’ policies.  We examined the Federal Bureau of Prisons, California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Differences in policy are evidenced by–among other things–supervision of interviews, access to certain types of prisoners, access to certain areas of prisons, and the ability to use recording devices. Many states leave themselves the right to deny interviews if they feel it will cause “a disturbance” but none of the policies state what that would qualify or how that would be measured, and thus the bottom line is that in most cases, prison officials usually have considerable latitude in deciding whether a reporter may interview a particular prisoner.

Our hope is that this initial look will spark a wider conversation about public awareness with regards to U.S. citizens who are locked away for weeks, months, or years in solitary confinement.  While there are alternative means for obtaining information, these are often insufficient in eliciting the types of things that can be learned through a journalist’s first-hand observations, and through face-to-face conversation.

To be sure, what is written in the policy does not necessarily correlate to actions in reality, but it is a crucial first step in bringing prison conduct to light.

FEDERAL BUREAU OF PRISONS

Prisoners in “segregation, restricted, holdover, control unit, or hospital status” are limited to one one-hour interview per month. They have the right not to be photographed or have their voice recorded by the media, however if the press representative obtains written permission they may.

Although interviews are not subject to auditory supervision, there are two conditions for both the press and prisoners regarding interviews. For the press, “A representative of the news media is requested to provide the Bureau of Prisons an opportunity to respond to any allegation, which might be published or broadcast prior to distribution.” And for the prisoners, “As a prerequisite to granting the interview, an inmate must authorize the institutional staff to respond to comments made in the interview and to release information to the news media relative to the inmate’s comments.”

Lastly, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has the right to deny interviews if they feel it “would probably cause serious unrest or disturb the good order of the institution.”

In reality, no reporter has been granted access to the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum (ADX), the most secure federal supermax, since September 11, 2001.

(Full Press Policy here)

CALIFORNIA

Media representatives shall not enter security housing units, condemned units, (death row), the execution chamber, Administrative Segregation Units or any other area unless they obtain approval from a correctional official. Interviews with people in prison are at the discretion of the institution head, “including restricting the time, place and duration of interviews.” Phone calls are limited to fifteen minutes and may be recorded.

In reality, a few reporters have been allowed to tour Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit, but can only interview designated prisoners.

(Full Press Policy here)

FLORIDA

The state has strict press policies: Interviews are simply prohibited if the prisoner is “in disciplinary confinement, classified as close management, has serious psychological problems, is in a hospital or is an infirmary patient.” (It should be noted that according to the American Psychiatric Association, 20 percent of all people in prison are “seriously mentally ill.”) Prisoners may also be denied an interview, “If the warden or senior facility officer believes the interview will impair the security or normal operation of the facility.”

In Florida members of the press cannot enter security housing units, condemned units (death row), the execution chamber, Administrative Segregation or any area currently affected by an emergency without approval of the communications director or designee.  In lieu of these restrictions, Florida offers the option of “stock video footage” and still photographs of chamber, Death Row, Administrative Segregation and Security Housing Units available in the Public Affairs section of their prison website.

(Full Press Policy here)

ILLINOIS

Interviews with individuals in solitary confinement are not explicitly prohibited. The Director will determine whether an interview can be held based upon, “among other matters, the effect that an interview may have on the individual or other committed persons, and the effect upon safety, security, institutional order, or other penological concerns.”

In reality, journalists report that they were not permitted into Tamms supermax before its closure.

(Full Press Policy here)

LOUISIANA

The policy states, “All legitimate news media organizations shall be allowed reasonable access to the state’s correctional facilities unless security considerations dictate otherwise.” Another other notable condition is that offenders are not permitted to discuss the crimes they’ve been convicted of in interviews.

In reality, press access to Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, the two members of the Angola 3 who have been in solitary for more than 40 years, is severely restricted.

(Full Press Policy here)

NEW YORK

Individuals in solitary confinement are permitted one “non-legal” visit per week, and at the discretion of the Commissioner, they can substitute this for a media interview. However, prisoners in pre-hearing confinement status or serving a disciplinary confinement sanction, which includes Special Housing Units and Keeplock, are not permitted to have media interviews.

The interviews between news media and prisoners that are approved shall be supervised “by way of direct observation” by an assigned security employee. This is meant to maintain “appropriate security observance.” However the policy explicitly states that whoever is supervising cannot do so “in a manner that could reasonably be interpreted as having a chilling effect.”

Certain areas of the correctional facility will not be accessed during a press visit either for security reasons or for “the privacy of inmates.” They include but are not limited to disciplinary housing areas, arsenals, perimeter security systems, medical and mental health units, protective custody units plus any other areas deemed of a sensitive security nature by the superintendent and Public Information Officer.

In reality, since nearly all isolated prisons are ”in pre-hearing confinement status or serving a disciplinary confinement sanction,” they are off limits to the press, as are virtually all solitary confinement units.

(Full Press Policy here)

OHIO

In Ohio, the Managing Officer or his designee has full control over the number of reporters who may come into correctional institutions and the duration of their visits. They also may place “reasonable restrictions on the frequency, length, and starting time of personal interviews” as well as “visually monitor” them.  The Ohio policies state that the media must get permission for photographic, recording or broadcast equipment for interviews in advance, and must get secure clearance for pictures or recorded interviews. This is at least implies that the media can theoretically use those devices.

(Full Press Policy here)

PENNSYLVANIA

Pennsylvania’s press policy clearly states that under no circumstances may a prisoner’s face be photographed, videotaped, or filmed. In the case of audio recording, “the inmate shall only be referred to by his/her FIRST name.” Pennsylvania says they will select individuals for interviews based on several considerations including whether or not the prison feels confident or concerned about what the prisoner may say publicly, and whether there is a “level of notoriety attached to the inmate’s conviction or subsequent incarceration.” Their press document asks, “Will this inmate bring unwanted media attention to the Department? Does the inmate present a positive image of himself/herself, other inmates, and the Department at large?”

Pennsylvania’s policy was also the only one that threatened disciplinary action to prisoners based on receiving compensation for interviews.

(Full Press Policy here)

TEXAS 

It is made quite difficult to obtain interviews with individuals in Texas solitary confinement. According to their stated policy, “An interview may be prohibited when the offender is in Solitary Confinement or Administrative Segregation.” Additionally, a Warden may set limitations for media access to the unit when, in the Warden’s judgment, such media access “would disrupt the safety and security of the unit or cause serious operational problems.” On top of that, interviews with offenders who are diagnosed with psychiatric disorders are prohibited.

When it comes to photographs or videos of offenders, there must be written consent when the offender’s face can clearly be identified. It should be noted later how this contrasts with Pennsylvania’s policies which states under no circumstances may an offender’s face be identifiable.

(Full Press Policy here.)

The Costs of Solitary Confinement

Originally published in The JHU Politik and then on WJHU Radio blog

Solitary confinement is a form of imprisonment that goes by many names, ranging from “administrative segregation” to “disciplinary confinement” to “security housing.” All of these titles describe the practice of subjecting a prisoner to approximately 22-24 hours per day of isolated lockdown in a tiny cell. I am not going to focus on the moral implications of solitary confinement. Instead, I argue that we need to eliminate or greatly reduce the use of solitary confinement simply because it is far too expensive for our nation to afford, and because of its clear connection to an increased rate of recidivism when individuals are released back into society.

Contrary to popular belief, the practice of solitary confinement in the United States is not simply used for the most dangerous and threatening prisoners. It is estimated that over 80,000 prisoners are currently held in some form of solitary confinement, the majority of them having some sort of mental illness or cognitive disability. As of today, prisoners can be placed in indefinite isolation for months or years not only for violent acts, but also for ignoring orders, possessing contraband, testing positive for drug use, or even for using profanity. Many are children that are kept in solitary for “protection.” Many are gay or transgender, Muslim, or senior citizens. Many have reported rape by prison officials, and many are sentenced for questionable political or religious beliefs. In Virginia, for example, a group of Rastafarian men were placed in solitary confinement because they refused to cut their hair on religious grounds.

If  the  use  of  solitary  confinement  were  limited  solely  to  the most treacherous and predatory of prisoners, then most supermax prisons—facilities designed solely to provide long-term, solitary confinement for inmates classified as the greatest threats to national and international security—would be relatively empty because there simply are not that many individuals in this extreme category. It is estimated, however, that at least 25,000 inmates are currently in supermax facilities.

Because the federal government wants to avoid appearing “soft on crime,” we have been spending exorbitant amounts of money, often without much oversight, to appear “tough” on security. One study, conducted by Jeffrey Ian Ross, a Research Fellow of the Center for International and Comparative Law, estimated that the average per-cell cost of housing an inmate in a supermax prison is $75,000, as opposed to $25,000 for an inmate in the general prison population. This is, in part, due to the higher staffing costs needed to monitor those in solitary confinement. Additionally, constructing supermax prisons is a very expensive endeavor; the construction costs, according to a study conducted by the Urban Institute, are two to three times more expensive than a maximum-security prison.

As state budget cuts are being applied across the country to education, healthcare, social programs, housing subsidies and more, we simply cannot afford to be spending such ridiculous sums of taxpayer money on solitary confinement units. This is especially true when research, like the study conducted in 2006 by the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, shows that solitary confinement has been found to cause serious psychological damage to inmates. Consequently, this psychological damage has been contributing to an increase in recidivism when individuals are released directly back into the general population.

Some states are already leading the way to reform this expensive and unhelpful system. Recently, Mississippi has reduced the number of prisoners it holds in solitary from 1,000 to about 150, and it has closed down its supermax unit. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the reforms are saving Mississippi’s taxpayers an estimated $8 million per year.

The financial costs attached to solitary confinement are clear and untenable. Even disregarding the shockingly high rates of suicide for prisoners in solitary confinement, and the fact that prisons have become the largest inpatient psychiatric centers over the past thirty years, we should work immediately to reduce the number of individuals in solitary confinement simply for the sheer economic savings it would bring – savings that we as a country greatly need.

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Much of the research for this article came from Solitarywatch.com where I am currently interning.