AJCongress joins inmates fight for right to speak to the media

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Given today's tough-on-crime attitude, civil liberties for prisoners is not exactly a politically popular concept.

Regardless of the political climate, the American Jewish Congress believes prisoners' civil liberties must be strictly protected as a fundamental constitutional right.

For the last year, the organization's Religious Liberty Behind the Wall Project has worked to ensure that California inmates of all religious stripes have access to materials necessary for practice — from kosher food and food appropriate for Muslim inmates to Buddhist scriptures.

The organization is currently drafting interfaith religious liberty guidelines for use in prisons around California.

Now the project is taking its task a step further, challenging proposed changes in inmate rights by the California Department of Corrections that would restrict inmates' contact with the media.

San Francisco attorney and AJCongress member Martin Kassman addressed the CDC June 13 in a hearing in Rancho Cordova.

He joined 16 others in denouncing the proposed regulatory changes.

"We want to make sure violations in prisoners' civil and religious liberties come to light. One way is through contact with the media," he explained after the hearing. "If the media can't get correspondence in confidence, prisoners won't send it at all."

Until recently, policies governing inmates' interviews with the media and granting confidential status for inmate-media correspondence were relatively liberal.

However, the CDC — citing heightened risks of operational and security problems, and the worsening of inmates' attitudes — hopes to eliminate both confidentiality and face-to-face media interviews with inmates.

In an initial statement explaining its reasons, the CDC added that "certain…inmates become the subject of extensive press coverage and become public figures.

Through the media, these inmates [are] able to advocate their own agendas to the rest of the inmate population."

Despite those arguments, Kassman said the AJCongress opposes these changes.

In a prepared statement to a CDC hearing officer, he cited the "negative impact on freedom of the press, the public's right to know and the ability of inmates to redress violations of the limited civil rights the law affords them."

He disputed further arguments that victims and their families may become upset upon seeing inmates interviewed on television.

But no CDC senior officials heard Kassman's rebuttals or those of the 16 others.

According to an Associated Press report, a CDC spokesman acknowledged it is unlikely that any top officials will ever hear those comments.

"The CDC is a very arrogant institution," Kassman said. "I think they believe the public doesn't really want to know what goes on in prisons."

He described the public's attitude toward prisoners as "Put them behind bars and make them invisible."

He added that the proposed changes seem more a CDC ploy to avoid scrutiny than to increase security.

"The public has a right to hear about prison conditions — not just from the jailkeeper's point of view, but from the inmate's point of view, as communicated through the news media," he said during the hearing.

"As out of fashion as it may be, it is also appropriate in this context to express some concern for the civil liberties, such as they are, of the human beings incarcerated in the CDC's prisons," Kassman said, adding that AJCongress is "concerned that the CDC's proposed changes will result in more violations of prisoners' rights going unreported and unredressed."