Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Corrections Department obstructs free press

Published in the Portland Phoenix

This week is Sunshine Week, a time when media organizations around the country draw attention to state and federal Freedom of Information laws, to remind citizens and government workers about the importance of government openness and accountability. Maine’s law guaranteeing open government is called the “Freedom of Access” law, a name that is especially poignant in view of the Corrections Department’s restrictive attitude toward the media.

A national press organization — as well as several statewide ones — are joining the criticism of the Maine Department of Corrections, which has over the past several months attempted to block reporters from contacting inmates, in the wake of a series of Portland Phoenix articles (based in large measure on interviews with inmates) exposing mistreatment, poor healthcare, and lack of official accountability in the Maine State Prison — and particularly in its Supermax unit.

The criticism is based primarily on a proposed revision to the prison’s media-interview policy, drafted by associate corrections commissioner Denise Lord and Diane Sleek, the assistant attorney general who represents the department. Ironically, Sleek is paid by the people of Maine to uphold the law — including its provisions that government be open to public scrutiny — while at the same time defending the Corrections Department’s actions, including those that seek to bar scrutiny of the publicly funded agency. (Sleek has objected to my calling her job duties a conflict of interest, but has not responded to my question asking which piece of her job I inaccurately described. The fact that she holds a job in the AG’s office speaks for her responsibility as a public official; her actions on behalf of the Corrections Department clearly demonstrate her opposition to public oversight of the agency.)

Sleek has even defied a judge’s order to move a mentally ill inmate out of the Supermax and into the state’s mental hospital, saying she would keep him in prison until the end of his actual prison sentence — for another ten years — before sending him to get the medical care a judge ordered (see “Arbitrary Imprisonment,” by Lance Tapley, July 21, 2006).

After months of not responding to requests to interview prisoners, in mid-December, the department gave longtime Portland Phoenix contributing writer Lance Tapley a new form he would have to sign before being allowed to talk to inmates. The new rules were so obviously unconstitutional — including allowing prison staff to read a reporter’s notes from an interview — that the Maine Pro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (of which I am vice-president) began coordinating a letter from objection from other Maine press groups, including the Maine Press Association and the Maine Association of Broadcasters.

A Maine Public Radio story in mid-January about the complaints broke the news that the governor — who has for months refused to comment to the Portland Phoenix about the prison series — had ordered Sleek’s boss, attorney general Steven Rowe, to revise the media policy in accordance with the state’s constitution and laws. That promise forestalled the sending of the protest letter, but not for long.

After weeks of delay, the department issued a draft of a revised policy, adding more restrictions — including attempts to completely ban video and still cameras and audio recording, and trying to control both the content of interviews and how the material gleaned in them might be used. Several restrictions sought to give prison officials the right to control the content, substance, and nature of both questions by reporters as well as answers from inmates.

The new draft has raised even more objections than the previous attempts by corrections officials to limit reporting on their agency and on their official acts. It has already been protested by the Maine Civil Liberties Union. (The Phoenix wrote a letter as well, arguing that the entire policy was still so blatantly unconstitutional that it should be scrapped and rewritten from scratch.)

More letters are in the works, from SPJ, MPA, and MAB, and the national office of SPJ.