Opinion: Let reporters into prisons

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As a young public defender, I represented an innocent man who was convicted of
murder.

John Tennison was serving a sentence of 25 years to life when, in 1997, I
contacted a 20/20 news producer, who agreed to feature the case.

Tennison had already lost seven years of his freedom. A national broadcast
exposing concealed evidence, perjury and misconduct by police and prosecutors in
the case could reverse his fate and reunite him with his family.

But when prison officials denied the television crew an interview with my
client, producers were forced to withdraw. No interview meant no story.
 
Tennison was eventually exonerated, but it took 14 years. Fortunately, a
reporter from the SF Bay Guardian named Adam Clay Thompson accompanied me during
a prison interview as my paralegal and was able to meet and interview Tennison.
He wrote a cover story that exposed the injustice of Tennison's case and
started the ball rolling towards his eventual exoneration. I am convinced that
if media access were granted in this case, it would have restored his freedom
years earlier.
 
For the past 15 years, California’s prisons have operated in a virtual media
blackout. With the flick of his pen, Governor Jerry Brown has the opportunity to
turn on the light.
 
Now on his desk is AB 1270, also known as the Prison Media Access Bill. The
bill, authored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, would restore the press’ ability to
conduct pre-arranged, face-to-face interviews with specific prison inmates.
 
Currently, reporters may interview inmates who are hand-picked by prison
officials. They are not allowed follow-up contact, making it impossible to know
whether a prisoner has suffered retaliation as a result of the interview.
 
It wasn’t always this way. During Brown’s first stint as governor, the press was
free to fulfill its watchdog role in California prisons.
 
In 1996, prison officials clamped down on press access under the guise of
discouraging tabloid media from making celebrities of notorious killers. In the
process, it also made it far harder to expose systematic abuse, fiscal
mismanagement and unsafe conditions for guards and inmates alike.
 
It was under this information shut-out that inhumane conditions were allowed to
fester to the point that the Supreme Court intervened in 2011, ordering the
release of 46,000 inmates.
 
It was nearly a century ago that US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote
that sunlight is the best disinfectant. It remains no less true today.

Government accountability is impossible without media access. The 2011-2012

state budget allocates $9.2 billion in taxpayer money to the CaliforniaDepartment of Corrections and
Rehabilitation, yet public information is limited by CDCR’s current restrictive
media policies.

Taxpayers deserve to know where their money is going. Like John Tennison,
innocent men and women languishing in California’s prisons deserve to tell their
stories.

Jeff Adachi is San Francisco's public defender.

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