The New Jersey Department of Corrections has imposed one of the nation’s tightest restrictions on media access to state prisons, including a complete ban on interviews with inmate reports the Newark Star-Ledger. George Hayman, the acting corrections commissioner, issued the ban after taking office in January, said spokesman Matthew Schuman. Schuman said department regulations give corrections officials discretion in granting interviews and Hayman was using that authority to issue a blanket prohibition. He said the new policy was based on security concerns. “The press still has the option of writing to inmates if they have questions,” Schuman said.
For decades, the jailhouse interview has been a staple of American journalism, the fodder for books like “In Cold Blood” and “The Executioner’s Song” and movies like “The Thin Blue Line.” Inmates have long used such interviews to protest their innocence, decry prison conditions, or just tell their life stories, not always a welcome prospect for law enforcement officials and victims of crime. Press organizations, inmate advocates, constitutional lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union condemned the new policy, saying it represented an erosion of the public’s right to know what is going on inside a public institution. “The Department of Corrections is a public institution funded by tax dollars,” said Edward Martone, director of education and policy for the Association on Correction, a non-profit advocacy group. “The public has a right to know how its money is being spent.” John O’Brien of the New Jersey Press Association, said not only the general public but policymakers themselves can benefit from information elicited by interviews with prisoners. He said he would seek to have the new policy overturned.