A podcast produced by two San Quentin inmates (with the help of a civilian outsider) has begun filling the information gap about California prison life that has persisted for the last 26 years, thanks to governors of both parties refusing to lift prison system rules against press interviews of particular inmates.
The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the First Amendment gives journalists no better right than that of the general public to interview inmates of correctional institutions, assuming that adequate alternative sources of information are available and that the correctional officials are not attempting to hide information from the public. Pell v. Procunier, 417 U.S. 817 (1974); Saxbe v. Washington Post, 417 U.S. 843 (1974); Houchins v. KQED, 438 U.S. 1 (1978).
Despite those rulings the California Department of Corrections for many years continued to allow journalists to arrange interviews with specific inmates, with access provided apart from the visitation rights accorded family and friends, and to correspond with inmates via unopened mail.
But then, during the Wilson administration in 1991, after several embarrassing revelations in the press of institutional abuse of prisoners, the department invoked “emergency” rulemaking powers, bypassing normal administrative review. It adopted regulations that ended the unopened mail privilege and instituted ground rules, amended since then but still denying journalists the right to arrange interviews with specific inmates other than under normal public visiting rules, which involve a more protracted waiting period and a criminal background check. In 2012 Governor Brown added his veto to the previous eight of his predecessors, the latest attempt being AB 1270 by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco).
Despite this shutdown on normal media coverage, an inmate podcast called Ear Hustle has attracted the attention of both The New Yorker and The Atlantic this summer, and although vulnerable to such controls as censorship or assignment of either producer to a different prison, is one window on the lives of those Inside that for the time being keeps the public that cares informed.