September 17, 1999

An Empire of Slaves — California Prisons Still Out of Bounds For Media

By Michael Kroll

SACRAMENTO — By vetoing a bill which would have given the media the right to interview prisoners in private, California Governor Gray Davis has again underscored this state's reputation as one of the largest slave-holding empires in the world. Other than our immense prison population, no class of Americans could be prevented from talking to the press about real or imagined abuses. And no other class of Americans remain enslaved by constitutional mandate. The post-Civil War 13th Amendment abolished slavery in America — except as a punishment for crime.

"The purpose of incarceration is punishment," Davis said, rubber stamping the policy set in place by his Republican predecessor Pete Wilson. According to the governor's spokesperson, Michael Bustamante, Davis worried that allowing prisoners to be interviewed by the press "didn't allow for balanced reporting." Which leaves the Department of Corrections in the cat bird's seat as far as what information the public can "safely" be allowed to know.

But the slave-holding public is not clamoring to know what its hired guns are doing to the nearly 200,000 Californians, mostly black and Latino, locked behind steel doors surrounded by barred gates and razor-ribbon. Nor is there much interest in how the $4 billion dollar budget, growing by leaps and bounds every year, is being spent. What is the governor trying to hide — and from whom? Even with the ban, a few courageous reporters have per-servered to uncover official abuses that rival the crimes of even the most famous of prisoners, like Charles Manson or Richard Allen Davis (whose crimes — and not the media — made them famous).

* In the state's super maximum prison at Pelican Bay, guards dipped a mentally ill prisoner into boiling water to stop his rantings, nearly killing him and causing 3rd degree burns all over his body;

* At Corcoran State Prison, rival gang members were set up like "Gladiators" to have fist fights on tiny, enclosed prison yards so that they could be shot (some to death) by unseen guards in overhead catwalks who were betting on the outcome;

* In San Quentin's Adjustment Center, a schizophrenic prisoner was killed by guards "extracting" him from his cell while he screamed, "They're coming to kill me!"

These are but a very few of the abuses uncovered even in the face of the media ban now in effect in California. Under the Governor's no-interview policy, none of these prisoners, nor any prisoners who witnessed these events, has a right to talk to the press unfettered by eavesdropping guards — the very guards who perpetrated the atrocities they want to reveal.

One can only wonder — and shudder — at the number and depravity of such abuses that might be uncovered if the press were free to do its job.

But that, of course, is precisely what the Governor's media ban is designed to prevent. After all, what we don't know about our slaves can't hurt us — or the political class that depends on our votes. And slaves don't vote.

Michael Kroll is former director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, DC and has written on prison issues for two decades.

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