Unspun

Martin was released in 1991, and he and Sussman have since co-written a book, Committing Journalism: The Prison Writings of Red Hog, about their collaboration. But with Martin's release, the legal challenge was declared moot. As Sussman ruefully notes, that means any similar experiments are threatened by high-cost litigation and inside retribution.

"The punishment a prisoner risks in speaking to you is far more onerous than some government whistle-blower," he says. "You're dealing with a secret and authoritarian institution, and the people who are running it are used to having total control. Often there is no rational basis for the rules or punishments, no reasonable way to challenge them, no effective way of getting word out, no recourse at all."

Sussman is skeptical about how much good high-level contact greasing might do, but he is more optimistic about gaining useful information by reporting on the broader prison economy. "There is a whole set of sources who move in and out of the prison walls and are not sucked into the them-versus-us environment," he says. "Teachers, artists, clergy, social workers, psychiatrists -- these folks are rarely tapped."

Then he gets down to the nuts and bolts: "At the state level, you're now operating under rules that prohibit face-to-face media interviews with prisoners and that no longer allow confidential mail between prisoners and media. Mail from prisoners to their legislators and lawyers is still confidential. You can talk on the phone, but the calls are taped and monitored. Theoretically, you can still visit a prisoner, but not as a reporter. That means you can't bring a paper or a pencil or a recording device with you."

Those rules, imposed by the state Corrections Department earlier this year on an emergency basis, without public comment and without any formal reason, must be vetted by the state Office of Administrative Law (OAL) before any formal court challenge can be made. In an initial victory for the media groups who have questioned the legality of the regs, the OAL found that the Department of Corrections had not sufficiently addressed the criticisms in seeking permanent regulations. The department has until Feb. 25 to reply.

In the meantime, the ongoing FBI probe of Corcoran has been joined by a new investigation from a very embarrassed state Corrections Department. A federal grand jury is sitting in Fresno to consider criminal indictments of Corcoran guards and administrators, and a nervous prison guards union that pumped a lot of dough into the campaigns of losing Assembly and Senate candidates is now looking at a new Democratic-controlled Legislature that's talking prison oversight. Come January, the governor's budget will have to propose taking money from somebody's pot to pay for the prison construction and maintenance that voters have refused to finance with bonds.

That may be more politics than prison. But we've got to start somewhere.
Hello warden, get me rewrite.

Susan Rasky can be reached at SF Weekly, Attn: Unspun, 425 Brannan, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: (415) 536-8139; e-mail: porrick@sfweekly.com.

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