Entrance to Richard J. Donovan prison
The entrance to the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa. File photo

California’s prison system is neither efficient nor effective. That’s the conclusion of multiple media reports and critics, who have documented poor conditions throughout the 34-adult prison system that houses more than 90,000 prisoners.  

This world behind closed doors may soon be opened for all to see under a newly proposed state legislation.

Senate Bill 254, which would also apply to local jails, would widen access to news media and state legislators. It could potentially allow a wide range of questions to be answered about the prison system. 

For example, reporters could study close up why it costs $100,000 a year per prisoner, why medical treatment is poor, and why so many return to prison for another term. California state Sen. Nancy Skinner from Berkeley introduced the bill.

“While I can’t predict what practices may change or what information would come to light once media access is restored, opening access will give journalists better investigative tools,” she said. “As the saying goes, ‘sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant.’”

Asked whether she thinks more access to prisons and jails could reduce in-custody deaths, she responded, “The rise of in-custody deaths in jails and prisons has been alarming and deeply troubling. If restoring media access provides the public and policymakers with more information on what is contributing to those deaths, it could result in solutions that save lives.”

Years ago the California system was a model for prisons in the United States. It was treatment-oriented, a leader in the “rehabilitative model of incarceration,” said criminologist Francis Cullen, distinguished research professor emeritus at the University of Cincinnati’s School of Criminal Justice. 

Then conditions changed in the 1960s and 70s, when rehabilitation was attacked for leaving too much power in judges’ hands. Finally, in 1976 determinate sentencing began and rehabilitation was no longer a concern, Cullen said.

It was in late 1995 that Pete Wilson, former mayor of San Diego and the governor of California at that time, who implemented what was called a temporary rule prohibiting news reporters from conducting personal interviews of inmates in prison. It was characterized by critics as “government censorship of information.” Wilson’s temporary rule is still with us years later but faces a possible end with the introduction of Skinner’s legislation.

The proposed bill will strengthen the ability of the news media and state legislators to access prisons and prisoners.

The legislation states that no incarcerated person or parolee may be “punished, reclassified, disciplined, transferred to another prison against their wishes, or otherwise retaliated against” for participating in a visit by, or communicating with the news media. The media would be able to document prison conditions with audio and video recording devices in all interviews. 

If the warden or sheriff refuses a media request  they would have to say so within 48 hours and provide their reasoning within five days. A request could be refused if it’s seen as a threat to a facility’s security or an individual’s safety.  

Under the bill, interviews in person or via telephone could not be monitored by anyone other than a representative of the news media. In addition, whatever information is eventually collected by the media would not be able to be reviewed by representatives of the prison. 

All facilities and county jails would have to allow state officials to visit the prisons at any time and meet with incarcerated prisoners upon request.

John Beatty, a retired political reporter at 10News in San Diego recalls filming the special “No Vacancy” inside of Vacaville, San Quentin and Folsom prisons. At that time — 1984 — prisons were way over capacity, by as much as 170%, Beatty recalled.

­He was able to interview different prisoners about issues inside the prison. They expressed concerns about the overcrowded, dangerous conditions and the poor educational programs that were offered. This was at a time when a number of prisons were being built or expanded, and locally Richard J. Donovan State Prison in Otay Mesa was in the planning stage.  

The governor at that time was George Deukmejian who preceded Wilson. While the “Iron Duke” administration would build eight new penitentiaries, it would be Wilson who supported limiting access to those prisons.

Wilson felt reporters’ interviews led notorious prisoners to become celebrities and could potentially reopen wounds for victims and their families. One instance often cited is Geraldo Rivera’s coverage of Charles Manson, the serial killer and cult leader.

 Wilson and the state Legislature eventually left it to the agency that oversaw the prison system to decide how requests for access should be handled. The California Department of Corrections decision is still with us 28 years later.

In that time frame the corrections system has been through extremes, with billions of dollars spent locking people up. Now the correctional industry in California is shrinking, with two prisons closing this year and six others planning to shut down areas within their penitentiaries. But as the prison population drops, the budget request for this coming fiscal year is up to $14.5 billion.

The proposed bill is “a game changer,” said Greg Fidel, policy director for the Initiate Justice organization that advocates for criminal justice reforms.

“At the end of the day, it’s about transparency,” he said. “Because right now behind the prison walls, we don’t know what happens. Right? If we do get a report, it’s usually from the administration or, you know, the correctional staff. And that’s one side of the story with its own, you know, biases or slants, whatever it may be.”  

The cost to house a prisoner is more than six figures a year, which “is money that taxpayers are paying, they should know where their tax dollars are going and if it’s effective or not,” Fidel said.

The prison population has shrunk by 78,000 prisoners since 2010, but nothing is a slam dunk when it comes to the issue of opening up state prisons to outsiders. Since 1998 there have been nine failed attempts by the legislature to reverse the Department of Corrections’ control. Skinner’s bill is the first attempt in a decade.

In the past it was dead on arrival at the governor’s desk because of the forces that opposed the legislation. This includes the powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the prison guards union. Their ability to oppose change has been demonstrated again and again, with governors Wilson, Gray Davis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown vetoing any legislative effort. 

Ben Carrasco, writing for a Stanford Criminal Justice Center study on the unions’ influence, said it was “one of Sacramento’s most formidable political machines.” Also expected to oppose the legislation, said Fidel, are the California District Attorneys Association and the California State Sheriffs Association.  

Asked to comment on the legislation, the sheriffs group’s Cory Saizillo said, “We are reviewing the language but have not taken a position.” San Diego County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Lt. Amber Baggs said that Sheriff Kelly Martinez “has not taken a position on this bill at this time”. 

Neither the District Attorneys Association or the Correctional Peace Officers Association responded to a request for comment.

Fidel says he expects the major players “are going to try to water it down, kill the bill, you know, force amendments upon it. But it will pass and end up on the governor’s desk.”

“I think there will be very strong support, there will be a lot of momentum behind this,” he said. “You’ll have a strong coalition of advocates for criminal justice reform from the press and media, and we’ll put a lot of pressure on the governor to sign it.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom, he predicts, will do “his own political calculus: Does this hurt me? Does this help me?”

In the last session the governor vetoed several bills that would have had a major impact on how California prisons are run. But Skinner is optimistic about her legislation becoming law.

“It’s not uncommon that changing a law can require multiple attempts before it is successful. Opening public access to police records on police misconduct is a case in point,” she said. “It took many bill introductions before that was successful in 2018. I’m hopeful that SB 254 will be successful this year.”