No Media Cameras in Illinois Prisons Until Further Notice

By Alison Flowers
Medill Innocence Project

After probing Illinois’ prisons’ camera-access policy, the Medill Innocence Project has learned that in early February the Illinois Department of Corrections director banned members of the media from taking photographs or recording video in all prisons until further notice. The directive was not written or announced, Stacey Solano, chief public information officer for the prison system, confirmed in an interview.

In Illinois, prison system Director S.A. Godinez decided to prohibit news cameras inside correctional facilities because of “the effect upon the burden on prison resources, safety, security, institutional order, or other penological concerns,” said Solano in an email. The written policy has not changed, she said; the decision to allow cameras in prisons remains at Godinez’s discretion.

The Medill Innocence Project researched the First Amendment issue this spring while investigating a murder case and seeking to film a prisoner who claims she is innocent. The Medill Innocence Project also sought to learn about the camera-access policy in response to challenges that news organizations face covering prisons. Inmates in this country and beyond routinely make allegations of abuse, yet sometimes policies stand in the way of documenting such potential human rights violations. An extreme example surfaced in 2004 when photographs revealed the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison.

In late March, the Illinois prison system permitted journalists to film the fifth anniversary celebration of the department’s “Mom’s and Babies” program in Decatur, Ill., Solano said. The program allows select female inmates, who enter the prison system while pregnant, to give birth and keep their infants with them until they are released. “We do have discretion to promote the department as long as the director feels it can be done safely without risking security to staff or inmates,” Solano said.

The Medill Innocence Project learned about the camera ban after publishing a May 1 article about the denial of a Freedom of Information Act request of the prison system’s regulations. Lisa Weitekamp, the system’s FOIA officer, wrote then that the request was “unduly burdensome” and requested the Medill Innocence Project refine its FOIA request.

Solano then emailed the prison system’s media policy to the Medill Innocence Project, saying another FOIA request was unnecessary. The policy does not address cameras, with the exception of stating that photography is at the director’s discretion. When asked about video cameras, Solano explained the policy applies to all media: still photographs, video and print.

Illinois is among several states with tight restrictions on media camera access, such as Connecticut which does not allow on-camera interviews in prisons. Prison representatives from other states, such as California and Indiana, told the Medill Innocence Project that their media policies are more permissive.

“Generally speaking, when there’s a request for an on-camera interview, we allow that interview to take place, unless there is an overriding reason relative to safety and security not to,” said Douglas Garrison, chief of communications for the Indiana Department of Correction, in an interview for this article. “It’s mindful and respectful of the request and needs of the media.”

California’s prison system spokeswoman, Dana Simas, said her press office generally allows mainstream media to bring cameras into its institutions.  Tracy Rosenberg, executive director of Media Alliance, a California-based advocacy organization for freedom of the press, said media access in her state is a “random, arbitrary scenario from jail to jail and prisoner to prisoner.” The California general assembly is considering a bill that would regulate and standardize media access to prisoners.

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