Press behind bars

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  June 27, 2007

Maine prison bosses violate court orders: Department of Corrections ignores federal rulings going back to the 1970s. By Lance Tapley.
Waves of activism. By lance Tapley.
As a reporter, I can attest that the rules the state agreed to in the 1970s on news-media access to prisoners have been violated by the Corrections Department in its recent practices.

After my first few Phoenix articles on abusive conditions at the Maine State Prison appeared in 2005 and 2006, officials set unacceptable conditions when I requested additional interviews with prisoners — conditions the Phoenix and I saw as violating the principles of freedom of the press. Or the officials simply didn’t respond; or they refused the interviews on the grounds of “investigations” or “security,” without further explanation. The result: effectively, I have been banned from the state prison for eight months (see “Lockdown: What Do Prison Officials Have to Hide?,” by Lance Tapley, December 15, 2006).

Last winter, Corrections sought to formalize the restrictions they had imposed on my access by proposing written regulations that would apply to all news media. The proposed rules would require, among other things, department approval of interview and news-story content and a ban on cameras and sound recording. Several Maine news-media organizations joined the Phoenix to protest vigorously to officials, as did the Maine Civil Liberties Union, seeing the restrictions as an affront to the First Amendment. Almost immediately, the state started backing away from some of the proposals, but the matter has not been settled.

In the past couple of weeks, after the 1970s court orders had been brought to the department’s attention, I decided to test whether the prompt access and “open lines of communication” required by the Langford order would be observed. I asked to visit two Supermax prisoners, both of whom had already consented in writing to see me.

I was flatly refused permission to visit one of them — Gary Watland, the convicted murderer who has been charged with trying to use his wife last October to bring a gun into the prison to break him out. “Security and safety considerations” were given as the reason for the refusal, even though the policy I experienced in the past for Supermax prisoner visits required an inmate to be shackled hand and foot and kept in a “non-contact booth” behind a thick, plastic window from his visitor — essentially, in a separate room — with a guard nearby. Conversation is only possible through a small vent.

I was given clearance to visit the other prisoner, Michael James, a severely mentally ill man who has suffered enormously from his incarceration (see “Punish the Mentally Ill!,” by Lance Tapley, April 13), but only if a prison employee monitored our conversation. In an April attempt to interview a prisoner at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, an official’s presence and his interruptions to put subjects off limits had made a candid interview about the prisoner’s treatment and prison conditions impossible (see “Prisoner Gagged,” by Lance Tapley, May 4). I would not interview James under the conditions demanded.

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