As commissioner of corrections for the State of Maine, Joseph Ponte allowed a team from PBS Frontline to embed itself in the notorious solitary confinement ward of a maximum-security prison.
The resulting 2014 documentary, six weeks of access distilled into an excruciating hour of television, is hard to watch. Inmates cut themselves with razor blades and smear blood on the walls and tiny windows of their cells. They send eddies of human waste under the steel doors. The racket of wailing misery and catatonic fury is hellish. It is an in-your-face exposé of conditions unworthy of a civilized society.
And that is pretty much what Ponte, who has spent his career trying to reform our primeval prison system, intended. Transparency, Ponte told me recently, is a prerequisite for reform. “I think opening up the process—if we’re really committed to change—is a healthy way to say: ‘We all agree this is where we’re at; now how do we make it better?’”
Reform is the new black in American corrections, if you go by the extraordinarily bipartisan chorus of policymakers, the profusion of “justice summit” conferences, and the surge of attention from news media and organized philanthropy. America seems to be awakening to issues like the torment of solitary confinement, draconian sentencing, guard brutality, and the paucity of programs that would equip inmates to reenter society.
But Ponte’s kind of glasnost—the realization that society is less likely to fix what it is not allowed to see—is still very much a novelty in the institutions where America confines over 2.2 million people at a cost of about $70 billion a year.
“The walls and razor wire surrounding prisons at times seem to serve dual purposes: to keep the inmates inside, and to keep everyone else out,” Jennifer Gonnerman wrote recently in the New Yorker, where her expert and powerful reporting on criminal justice is published. “Wardens rarely permit journalists to tour their facilities, and some states refuse to allow any inmate interviews.”
In most prisons and jails, reporters who get themselves on an inmate’s list of approved visitors have to surrender pens, notebooks, tape recorders, and cameras at the gate. On occasions when reporters are invited to look around inside—as they have been recently in the company of celebrity visitors like President Obama and Pope Francis—they see the facilities on their best behavior.
Paul Wright, who started Prison Legal News while serving 17 years for first-degree murder and now distributes the monthly paper to thousands of inmate subscribers, says if anything the access to prisons has gotten steadily worse over the past 30 years. He suspects that as prisons filled to overflowing and conditions deteriorated, jailors had more to hide.
Julie Brown, who has uncovered scandal after scandal in Florida’s prison system, says the state has taken to rejecting public-record requests by pleading either “security” or “privacy.”
“Florida’s prison system redacts every conceivable detail of an inmate’s beating or neglect by prison staff under the guise that releasing those details violates federal health-privacy laws,” she said. “This means that if an inmate is beaten senseless, and is in a coma, they do not even contact the family because the inmate’s medical condition is private.” (Her newspaper, the Miami Herald, is challenging this in court.)
Even Ponte, who now is trying to improve conditions at the infamous Rikers Island jail complex in New York City, has been much less welcoming of reporters than he was in Maine, according to several journalists who cover the jail.
The best writing on conditions behind bars—the work of investigative reporters like Brown, Gonnerman, Michael Winerip and Michael Schwirtz for The New York Times, and (pardon my pride) Tom Robbins for the Marshall Project—is generally done over the resistance of corrections officials. It entails prying loose documents from a reluctant bureaucracy and coaxing information out of prison staff and inmates, who risk reprisals.
Prison authorities assert that letting reporters in is dangerous and disruptive, but their greater concern seems to be public relations. When our reporter Beth Schwartzapfel sought access to a Maryland prison last year for an interview with Willie Horton—the killer featured in a notorious scare campaign that helped elect the first President Bush—officials told us that interviewing Horton would glamorize him and revive painful feelings among his victims. (We took our request to the governor’s office and got permission, but Horton in the end opted to talk by phone for fear that being seen with a reporter would draw unwelcome attention from guards and fellow inmates.)
Corrections officials know that even the most positive stories can result in unpleasant fallout. Write about educational and cultural programs that are meant to prepare inmates for reentry to society, and you can expect a backlash from voters who regard this as pampering and a waste of taxpayer money.
Rhode Island commissioner A. T. Wall, whose state’s corrections system is regarded by journalists as the most accessible in the country, portrays transparency as a matter of accountability. “If we don’t make ourselves available to the media,” Wall told the Columbia Journalism Review, “[if we] don’t let people see a lot of what we do, we’re going to perpetuate a stereotype that we’re running dungeons.” Negative stories, he said, are “a cost of doing business.”
Accountability is part of it. But there’s something more. The price of keeping reporters out is that prisons and the people confined there remain a mystery, or a caricature, not fully human. Yes, there are predators in there, and innocents locked up by mistake are rare, though not rare enough. But 95 percent of those incarcerated will return to society, and the present cycle—harden them and recycle them—is both a waste and a menace to public safety. Unless the men and women and children we incarcerate are visible, the clamor for reform is likely to be unsustainable—a moment, but not a movement.