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In the wake of scathing reports that Michigan routinely allows sexual abuse of female inmates, state corrections officials are seeking to formalize their practice of keeping the media out.
Officials say the proposed policy change was in the works long before NBCs Geraldo Rivera was refused access to the prisons. Rivera nevertheless highlighted Michigan in his September television special on the sexual abuse of incarcerated women nationwide.
Proposed changes for the Michigan Department of Corrections pending before the states Office of Regulatory Reform include barring tape recorders and video cameras from state prisons and prohibiting interviews with prisoners at community corrections facilities.
MDOC spokesman Matt Davis says the proposed changes eliminate "any ambiguity about the departments role" in denying media access to prisons. Davis says cameras are already forbidden in practice on prison grounds and the department merely wants its policy to conform to its practice.
Deb LaBelle sees it differently. An attorney for 32 prisoners who have brought lawsuits alleging they were sexually abused by prison staff, LaBelle says MDOC violates its current policy, which allows discretion over which media it allows into the prisons, by barring all media. Now, she says, they want to make barring all media its policy.
"I think the practice is outrageous," she says. "I think the public has a right to know whats going on in there."
Those turned away from the prisons include print and television reporters, Human Rights Watch, and a United Nations representative. MDOC initially barred the U.S. Justice Department from inspecting the prisons, but federal officials entered under a court order before settling their civil rights suit against MDOC earlier this year.
Riveras television special on sexual abuse in prisons focused heavily on Michigans two womens prisons, Scott and Florence Crane correctional facilities, both in Plymouth. It included a video taken by prison guards of an inmate being tear gassed while chained to a bed at Scott. The former prisoner told Rivera she had been sexually abused in prison.
Davis said he was working on the policy change almost a year before Riveras request in May, adding that arranging press interviews unnecessarily endangers the safety of prison staff and creates security problems.
"This isnt in response to a damn thing. Were not embarrassed. We have nothing to hide."
LaBelle said if the department has nothing to hide, it should have an open-door policy. She said forbidding interviews with prisoners at community corrections facilities appears designed to prevent interviews such as Riveras with parolee Jacqueline Myrick at Project Transition, a community program in Detroit.
Davis says it is unclear what other restrictions could result from the departments draft proposal. Regardless, Davis says, prisoners would still be able to communicate with the media by telephone and by mail.
Laws on media access to prisoners vary from state to state. Florida officials, for instance, are also seeking to curtail media access to prisoners.
As for the peoples right to know, Davis said, "God forbid that Geraldo Rivera would be the sole conduit of the peoples right to know. Wed be like East Timor right now."