BERKELEY, Calif. (KRON) — California’s prisons operate under a veil of secrecy with policies that severely limit access to what’s on the inside, according to a coalition of journalists and state senators.

State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley introduced new legislation Monday that would reopen access to California prisons to news media and state officials to provide policymakers with the information they need for effective oversight.

“Current regulations are so onerous that there is no meaningful access. This bill will ensure access that is necessary to shine a light on what occurs inside our jails and prisons,” said Brittney Barsotti, general counsel of California News Publishers Association. “We cannot afford to be behind states like Florida when it comes to transparency.”

SB 254, which would also apply to local jails, is sponsored by CNPA and co-sponsored by the California Broadcasters Association. If enacted, the legislation would restore transparency to prisons and jails to the level it was until the mid-1990s. It would also bring California back up to par with other states that provide both the media and public officials with greater access to their prisons, Florida, according to Sen. Skinner’s Office.

“The news media plays a vital role in providing information to the public and policymakers about how our government operates. 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,” Skinner said. “SB 254 will reopen access so we can collect more — and better — information about how one of our largest state programs functions,” Skinner said.

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.

The reporting on prisons also provided the public and policymakers with key information about the use of taxpayer dollars. This year, the budget for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), which operates state prisons, is $14 billion.   

“When transparency is increased, trust follows,” said Joe Berry, president of CBA. “This bill will allow local radio and television stations to keep their communities informed on how their tax dollars are being spent.”

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, CDCR adopted some of the strictest regulations in the country, and they remain mostly in effect today.

SB 254 will be the Legislature’s 10th attempt at restoring media access to prisons. Nine previous attempts were vetoed by governors.

The bill would also apply to city and county jails because state realignment of prisons allowed for tens of thousands of would-be prison inmates to serve their sentences in local jails, Skinner’s Office wrote.

This July 9, 2020, file photo shows a correctional officer closing the main gate at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

SB 254 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. This provision of the bill is modeled after a Florida’s prison access law.

SB 254 would also:

  • Allow representatives of the news media to tour prisons and jails and interview incarcerated people 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.
  • Allow representatives of the news media to use video cameras and other recording devices, which are now mostly prohibited.
  • Prohibit prison and jail officials from monitoring news media interviews or recording them
  • Protect incarcerated individuals from being punished for participating in a news media interview.
  • Direct prison and jail officials to inform the incarcerated person’s attorney of record before a prearranged interview.

“California prides itself on operating a transparent and open government. SB 254 will allow us to live up to that ideal when it comes to our prisons and jails,” Sen. Skinner said.