AJCongress supports media access to state prisoners

Lawmakers have given a preliminary thumbs up on a bill backed by the American Jewish Congress that would reverse a recent California Department of Corrections policy to bar journalists from interviewing inmates.

The state Assembly's Committee on Criminal Procedures on April 1 voted 6-2 to forward SB 434 to the Assembly Appropriations Committee before it goes to the floor for debate.

The bill protects "freedom of the press, the public's right to know and the ability of inmates to redress violations of the limited civil liberties the law affords them," wrote AJCongress attorney Martin Kassman in a recent letter to legislators.

"There are all kinds of things to come out when [inmates] have discussions with journalists," says Tracy Salkowitz, executive director of the AJCongress' San Francisco office. "If [prisoners] are under a gag order, it eliminates one critical avenue of accountability."

Each month, the AJCongress takes on several cases of prison or jail mishaps involving Jewish inmates. The agency helps observant Jewish inmates get kosher food and defends their right to wear religious paraphernalia and study the Torah.

"We get calls from chaplains, who want consultation [on such matters]. We help them wind their way through the Religious Liberty Act," she says.

While current CDC access restrictions on reporters apply only to state prisons, Salkowitz says SB 434 will resonate in city and county jails, where abuses are just as common.

While SB 434 supporters testified before the Committee on Criminal Procedures April 1, Salkowitz read a letter from an ailing Santa Rita County Jail inmate, who had not received adequate medical care. David (not his real name) was recovering at the jail from his December surgery for stomach cancer.

Not only were jail authorities slow to respond when David first discovered the lump in his abdomen last July, but they also failed to provide sufficient painkillers or antibiotics, Salkowitz was told.

Shortly after his surgery, David was cuffed and returned to a holding cell where he lay bleeding and vomiting for hours until he was taken to the jail clinic, he alleges.

He was returned to his cell two days later, but guards failed to administer his antibiotics regularly and later switched his painkiller prescription to two different medications, which made him sicker, he alleges. The wound later became infected and David had to return to the hospital.

On April 1, David was still waiting to be returned to the hospital for doctors to see if his cancer had been arrested, Salkowitz says.

Salkowitz would not say why David was in jail.

"We didn't get involved until the latter half of February, she says. "If he had been able to get this to the press earlier, something might have been done earlier."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.