Unspun

The Press Behind Bars
In news organizations across the country, post-election reshuffling of political reporters to beats less glamorous than the campaign trail is under way. My suggestion? Send them to prison.

I don't mean celebrating violent felons or championing the causes of out-of-touch do-gooders. I'm talking about tedious, thankless coverage -- on a sustained basis -- of jails, prisons, and other detention facilities as honest-to-god communities. That means coverage of corrections officials, of guards and their families, of prisoner's families, of staged and sanitized prison doings like concerts or art projects.

With luck, over time, it might convey the reality of prison life for the inmates and non-inmates who now coexist, without much scrutiny from anybody, in our corrections system.

How big is this community? Depends how you measure. California counts about 8,000 adults in federal prisons, 141,000 adults in state prisons, 70,000 adults in local jails, 9,900 youths in state facilities, and 8,000 youths in county camps and juvenile halls, figures compiled by the S.F.-based Criminal Justice Consortium show. That doesn't include the nearly 100,000 people on parole.

According to the Legislative Analyst's Office, the Legislature's nonpartisan budget watchdog, the California Department of Corrections' $3.5 billion in spending this year is one of the fastest-rising portions of the state budget; it's growing at an annual clip of about 8 percent. The analyst estimates that the costs to operate the department -- excluding county jails and other local facilities -- will total about $6.2 billion by 2006. That's an increase of nearly 100 percent over the next decade. The analyst also estimates that the state will need to spend $3 billion to build at least 10 prisons by mid-2006 to house the additional inmates. Their numbers are expected to rise by an average of 11,500 a year, exhausting all bed space in the system by mid-2000.

If the inmate math is too boggling, try the other side of the equation. California's fastest-growing union is the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, whose membership has doubled in the past six years to 25,000. The union is a major player in Sacramento and a hefty contributor to political campaigns (mostly, but not exclusively, Republican). Economists can only guess at how big a slice of our economy the prison industry -- vendors, janitors, construction workers, steel bar manufacturers, et al. -- actually represents.

The point is it's growing, big time. And if this were aerospace or computer chips or video games, the press would be all over it.

Consider the current "hot" prison story -- allegations by inmates at Corcoran State Prison that guards there were routinely staging fights between rival gang members and then using the pretext to shoot -- in some cases fatally -- the combatants.

In October 1994, two disgusted guards turned over incriminating prison documents about the incidents to the FBI. Investigators from the state Corrections Department's Special Services Unit, hoping to thwart the document transfer, pursued one of the guards and FBI agents in a 45-mile high-speed auto chase. Now that's a doozy of a public spectacle, but it only came to light a month ago. Forget prison brutality. Here's a tale of whistle-blowing guards, anguished families outside the prison walls, and talkative lawyers. Where was the press for two years?

Nowhere. Which is precisely where we'll remain -- clueless and sourceless -- unless we figure out how to start applying to the prison system what we already know about covering other closed institutions such as the military, the White House, political campaigns, and the local cop house.

That said, let's be clear about the reporting burden. We're dealing with nearly impossible access re-strictions, with sources who are often unreachable and untrustworthy; sources who risk severe punishment for gabbing; sources who are often incoherent, and who call collect at inconvenient times with just plain loony stories that can't be dependably verified.

Editors are sure to question the reliability of a convicted rapist who complains about unsanitary prison cafeterias. Readers are sure to think stories about drug rings in suburbia are a lot more important than stories about drug rings in the penitentiary.

In other words, this will be a beat from hell. So what's the practical plan for covering a county facility like Santa Rita, a state prison like San Quentin, or a federal prison like the one in Dublin?

Start with the standard devices of the journalistic trade: Fish for big stories by paying attention to and covering innocuous ones; invite a warden to lunch; get your publisher to throw a cocktail party for the brass at the Department of Corrections; read the prison guard trade magazines; play self-serving sources off one another.

Routine stuff. But prisons fall outside of journalism's routines. So I called Peter Sussman for a reality check.

Sussman, an independent author and president of the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, spent 29 years as an editor at the Chronicle. That included seven years in an extraordinary collaboration with Dannie Martin, then serving a sentence for bank robbery at the federal penitentiary at Lompoc.

With Sussman as his primary link to the outside world, Martin published 50 essays in the Chron on prison life. Two years into the venture, Martin wrote a piece critical of his warden, and authorities dug up an obscure regulation that effectively forbade such media work. The Chron took the case to court, lost in the early rounds, but continued running Martin's essays under the byline "By a Federal Prisoner."

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