News can be hard to get. Reporters must go through red tape in the government, coax reluctant sources and try to understand complex issues. Now imagine– trying to get news through concrete walls and gridiron windows. American prisoners can usually access news through different mediums, depending on their security level. Many prisons have libraries, TVs and some allow inmates to subscribe to newspapers and periodicals. Supreme Court decision Bounds v. Smith (1977) ruled that prisoners must have access to either legal libraries or legal counsel. However, reporters hoping to investigate the operations and occurrences inside a prison encounter several physical and systematic obstacles. Visitation at prisons in NC is limited to inmates’ loved ones, students on field trips, and researchers whose studies must undergo exhaustive, months-long, approval processes before they can enter the facility.
North Carolina incarcerates almost 40,000 individuals at a time, and that’s 40,000 of the state’s most unruly individuals. Many crimes that occur within prisons, both among prisoners and between Correctional Officers (C.O.s) and inmates go unreported by inmates due to oppressive prison administrations and intimidation tactics by correctional officers or other inmates. The crimes that are reported to prison administration are rarely covered in the media. Prison spokespeople often don’t report these crimes to the media, in an effort to protect the reputation of the prison and its administration. Many of these crimes — attempted murders, rapes, sexual offenses, attempted escapes and gang-related activity– would be front-page worthy if they occurred outside the prison. The public deserves to know what occurs in the facilities their tax dollars are funding. Reporters can contact inmates through the mail or arrange an interview for a non-death row inmate but only after receiving permission from the head of the facility-which can be arbitrarily denied. While this channel is available, reporters rarely know what news is to be found, where and when to find it and which inmates to reach out to as potential sources.
Prisoners with a story for the public often must take drastic actions to garner media attention. Inmates in Raleigh’s Central Prison, a maximum-security state prison, staged a hunger strike in 2012 in protest of poor medical practices and their lack of access to a law library. Prison spokespeople then reported that a hunger strike was taking place and journalists contacted several participants via mail to hear the prisoners’ demands. The news then became about the hunger strike, not that medical practices in the prison were dangerous and inmates had been denied access to a legal library, which is illegal in NC.
Individuals incarcerated in the solitary confinement unit at the same facility recently filed a lawsuit against 19 correctional officers for maltreatment and abuse. One violent altercation between officers and an inmate left Jerome Peters confined to a wheelchair. It is fortunate for reporters that the plaintiffs were able to file a lawsuit, with the few resources provided and with an obviously oppressive prison administration. However, the news story on this then becomes about the lawsuit filed, as opposed to a story that developed more naturally and focused on the on-going abuse of power these correctional officers are exhibiting.
Mental health is a major issue within prisons, and many existing disorders are exacerbated by prison circumstances, like solitary confinement. Suppose these abuses occurred in a mental health prison, like FMC Butner, where many inmates would not have the mental or intellectual capacity to file a lawsuit or to seek help on the other side of the bars.
If an inmate wants to reach out to a reporter with information about something happening inside their prison, it can be difficult without access to the Internet to find the address or phone number of a journalist. Inmates are not allowed much access to the Internet. There has been recent progress in lowering the cost of phone calls when the FCC ruled to reform prison phone costs however this ruling affects only federal prisons. State prisons are unaffected by this ruling and phone calls remain as high as $1 a minute. Making efficient contact through mail can be difficult for inmates. Once they have made contact with a journalist, the inmate shoulders the burden of convincing the reporter that there was or is a newsworthy event they should cover.
In North Carolina, the average inmate reads at a 9th grade level, and their writing ability tends to be lower. A person with these disadvantages would struggle to write a logical explanation of what is happening within the prison and why it is important for the journalist to cover it. Some reporters who receive this kind of mail might view the argument with skepticism and suspect that the inmate is lying or overreacting. Not to mention that members of media often receive pleas from prison claiming innocence and might not take seriously every tip that comes from a prison. And when reporters do want to investigate these claims, they have little ability to do further research with their only resource being the facility’s spokesperson.
Bernie Madoff was beaten in prison, according to an inmate at FMC Butner N.C., but officials of the prison denied the allegation. The Wall Street Journal reported, “Mr. Madoff was treated for a broken nose, fractured ribs and cuts to his head and face, according to a felon currently at Butner serving time on drug charges who was familiar with his condition at the time. The details of the injuries couldn’t be independently verified.” Because incidents like this are not reported by prison spokespeople and even refuted by officials, the story relies solely on the account of witnesses and not actual incident reports which invites doubt, decreasing the credibility of the story and the writer and minimizing the event itself.
This lack of access to prisons compromises the reporter’s ability to be a whistle-blower. Prisoners shouldn’t and can’t be expected to starve themselves, pay court and lawyer fees to file civil suits or write convincing letters to busy journalists every time a major injustice occurs. To ensure fair and humane treatment of inmates, it is important for the media to serve as a watchdog but the necessary transparency is not there. North Carolina’s prisons need reform in the way facilities’ administrations interact with the media.
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