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NY Prison Journalism Restrictions Were No Anomaly

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How often do prison systems place restrictions on the journalism produced by inmates? The Prison Policy Institute decided to compile a list after New York prison officials last month introduced a policy to effectively suppress prison journalism, only to abandon the plan after reporters at New York Focus exposed it and ignited a backlash.

Prison Policy Initiative scoured handbooks, prison policies and laws governing every corrections department in the U.S. to produce a report, "Breaking news from inside: How prisons suppress prison journalism."

PPI found that while only the federal Bureau of Prisons explicitly bans prison journalism, a web of complex and vague policies make the practice extremely difficult and sometimes risky.

A state by state survey charts the BOP and each state by three restrictive categories, with links to their policies:

  • total ban on business and compensation

  • partial ban on business and compensation

  • censored correspondence with news media

"Prisons don’t want you to know what happens inside. That’s what makes prison journalism so important.," PPI's report states. "As more news outlets publish incarcerated journalists, more departments will consider policies to control what information makes it out into the world."

The standard prison practice of censoring and surveilling snail mail, electronic messages, phone calls and video visits violates basic principles of free expression and privacy, PPI stated. Only four states — Arkansas, Georgia, Michigan and Texas — treat correspondence with the news media as “privileged communication,” meaning that letters between an incarcerated person and a media outlet cannot be opened or read by prison staff (although they may be searched in the presence of the incarcerated person for contraband).

The other 46 states and the federal BOP maintain the right to read and censor communications with the media. These policies are broadly explained as important to maintaining “security and order” — giving prison officials broad discretion.

Other aspects of prison life, such as an incarcerated person’s limited ability to maintain property, can also conflict with the practice of journalism. Papers, notes, books and other materials that can be important to reporting are vulnerable to confiscation and destruction by prison officials during cell searches and transfers. Additionally, a lack of access to the internet and heavily restricted use of tablets and computers can make researching, writing and editing much more difficult for journalists on the inside.

Fourteen states prohibit imprisoned people from operating or engaging in a business, including being self employed, and from receiving compensation for their work. Even if an incarcerated person were to produce journalism for free, vague restrictions on "business activities" can threaten their work with media outlets.

Most incarcerated people are only allowed to work in jobs that support prison operations, prison-approved work release programs, or prison industries. But 19 states allow people to work with outside businesses and organizations if they receive approval from the prison. In some rare cases, they may receive compensation for written work or publish writing so long as it is not a regular column.

"Much of what is known about incarceration comes from people who have been on the inside and have told their stories at great personal risk," PPI's report states. While incarcerated journalists still face discrimination and rejection from media outlets, and while New York may yet return with some form of journalism restrictions, PPI cited signs of change.

"Over the last decade, a growing movement of incarcerated journalists — some working with organizations like the Prison Journalism Project and Empowerment Avenue, others with prison newspapers like the San Quentin News — have had their work published," the report states. "This work is often used in countless investigations, lawsuits, policy reforms, and organizing efforts. This is great news for transparency, accountability, and change. Importantly, it also helps people build relationships and skill sets that can support them once they are released."


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