California lawmaker pushes to reopen news media access to prisons, jails

Gov. Newsom plans to shut San Quentin's death row and move condemned inmates to other prisons. he has previously placed a moratorium on executions. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images) (Getty Images)

A California lawmaker is proposing a bill to get TV cameras and reporters inside the state's prison system. 

State Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) on Monday 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. The bill would also apply to local jails. 

"The news media plays a vital role in providing information to the public and policymakers about how our government operates," Skinner said in a statement. "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." 

Dana Simas, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation, said she doesn't comment on pending legislation and she referred comments to the prison's media policies. 

Specifically, the bill would allow interviews of those behind bars 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

It also would allow producers and reporters to use video cameras and other recording devices, which are now mostly prohibited; prevent prison and jail officials from monitoring media interviews or recording them; protect incarcerated people from being punished for participating in a news interview; and direct prison and jail officials to inform the incarcerated person’s attorney of record before a prearranged interview.

The bill 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. 

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, Skinner's office said.

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, Skinner's office said CDCR adopted some of the strictest regulations in the country, and they remain mostly in effect today. 

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, according to Skinner's office.

This bill would be the Legislature’s 10th attempt at restoring media access to prisons. It 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.