Prisons are an abundant source of scoops and stories for enterprising reporters. Life “behind the walls” is rich with drama and moral complexity, and departments of corrections are as badly in need of journalistic sunshine as any other government agency, says the Columbia Journalism Review. To cover them is difficult. Reporters often “don't know how to get access, or they're refused access and they throw up their hands,” says Michele Deitch, a University of Texas law professor who specializes in prison oversight. Even those who can get in must navigate a complicated relationship with correctional administrators whose goals and needs are often at odds with their own.
It is hard to overstate the importance of covering prisons. For starters: 95 percent of prisoners—more than 600,000 people each year—eventually go home. What happened while they were inside—whether they received job training, adequate healthcare, or learned positive life skills, or whether they were embittered, recruited into a gang, or made connections in the criminal underworld—has profound consequences for the society they return to. And the ripples extend far beyond the prisoners themselves: Almost two million children have a parent in prison—to say nothing of inmates' parents, spouses, and siblings. Half a million correctional officers work behind the walls. Given this, “we want to make sure there's accountability for the results of all this imprisonment,” says Jenifer Warren, a writer and editor in Sacramento who for more than a decade covered corrections for the Los Angeles Times. “If you're going to use incarceration as a tool and response to crime, you want to make sure your money is being used wisely, and you're getting a return on your investment. It's billions and billions of dollars that could be spent on other things.”