New Arizona Department Of Corrections Media Policy Restricts Communications With Inmates And Staff

By Jimmy Jenkins
Published: Thursday, July 16, 2020 - 6:15pm
Updated: Friday, July 17, 2020 - 9:40am

Arizona Department of Corrections building
Arizona Department of Corrections
Arizona Department of Corrections building in Phoenix.

Arizona Department of Corrections Director David Shinn has drastically altered the department media policy regarding staff and inmate communication with the press.

“Department Order 207 – Media Relations” was updated July 9, 2020, excluding an entire section regarding media access to inmates.

The previous version of the order, updated March 25, 2013, outlined several channels of communication between members of the press and inmates, including mail, telephone and in-person interviews. The new Department order only specifies media may submit questions for inmates through the mail.

The Arizona Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to questions regarding the policy change or the reasons for it.

Over the past four years, KJZZ has conducted more than 20 phone interviews with inmates in Arizona prisons. The interviews have all gone as planned, without incident, and lasted 15 minutes each per department policy.

KJZZ discovered the change in the department's media policy after following up on a recent request for an interview with two incarcerated people that had been approved.

In an email, department spokesperson Bill Lamoreaux, who has facilitated every inmate phone interview for KJZZ in the past, said he was only recently told about the policy change. “I was unaware when scheduling the interviews that the department order was in the process of being revised,” he said.

Lamoreaux, the main media point of contact at the Department for facilitating inmate interviews, said the policy change went into effect last week while he was out of the office.

The new order also leaves out any mention of requesting in-person interviews with inmates.

Staff Ordered Not So Speak To Press

The updated department order makes significant changes to language regarding how Arizona Department of Corrections staff are instructed to interact with the press.

The previous order stated: “Any Department employee may speak with the media about personal issues or to express their personal opinions about Department operations in general on their own time. Whenever a Department employee has contact with the media, the employee is expected to demonstrate professionalism in demeanor and dress code standards.”

In the new order, the entire section regarding staff contact with members of the media has been deleted.

The new order specifically prohibits staff communicating with the press at any time: “Employees on or off duty who receive any inquiry about the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry (ADCRR) from the media or public are not authorized to speak to the media or public on behalf of ADCRR.”

Other language in the new order restricts and threatens the speech of Arizona Department of Corrections employees.

The old order states, “While all Department employees are required to comply in full, nothing in this policy should be construed to inhibit an individual’s ability to speak about personal issues under ordinary circumstances or to express their personal opinions about Department operations in general.”

The new order makes clear staff are not to speak to the press under any circumstances, and could be punished for doing so.

“All Department employees are required to comply in full with this Department Order,” the new policy states. If employees receive an inquiry from the press, the order states they must promptly forward it to the Department Media Relations Office. “The failure to do so may result in disciplinary action,” the order states.

The new order adds more qualifying language in two instances regarding media access. The previous “Purpose” statement of the Department of Corrections statement said “The Department strives to provide current, accurate, and timely information to the public and the press.”

The new order states “The Department strives to provide current, accurate, and timely information to the public and the press as appropriate.”

Narrowing Press Access

Media and Constitutional Law expert Dan Barr says it appears the Department of Corrections is attempting to narrow media access and coverage of their operations.

“As far as trying to figure out what’s going on in the prisons, ADC is making it much tougher,” Barr said. “ADC does not want anything other than its official version of things. They want to limit the ability of inmates and staff to talk with reporters.”

Barr noted that restricting correspondence between inmates and the media to mail gives ADC total control over the conversation. “Obviously, ADC can open and read the mail,” he said. “They monitor everything that goes in and out.”

Barr said the U.S. Supreme Court has given wide latitude to prisons regarding media access to inmates over security concerns. “But there’s no safety issues that come into play when a reporter is talking to an inmate over the telephone,” he said.

“The prisons are one of the largest items in the state budget,” Barr said. The annual budget for the Arizona Department of Corrections is more than $1 billion. “But compared to other parts of state government we know remarkably little about what’s going on. The people who run ADC don’t want accurate information coming out of the prisons that they don’t like.”

Barr said testimony delivered during the ongoing Parsons vs. Shinn prison health care settlement in Arizona is a good example of the need for information directly from sources in the prison.

“The prison administration gives one viewpoint of what’s happening, and then you find out from inmates and former employees that the situation is not at all as it’s being portrayed,” Barr said. “The official version from the Department’s PR person is worthless, frankly.”

Despite the new order, Barr said department employees still have the right to speak to the press off the clock.

“Not only do they have a right to do so, but their right is protected by both state and federal by whistleblower statutes,” he said. “While this policy might be there to dissuade people from talking to the media, they can’t prevent it.”

Videos of an inmate on staff assault at the Lewis Prison in Buckeye in 2018, first reported by ABC 15, were leaked to the press by Correctional Officer Gabriela Contreras. The publication of the videos led to millions of dollars in funding being appropriated to improve prison security, as well as increased scrutiny of former Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan, who would retire the following year.

Shinn was appointed by Gov. Ducey after a nationwide search. Since taking over the department in October 2019, Shinn has declined repeated requests for an interview with KJZZ and requests to tour the prisons submitted by several media outlets in Phoenix.

Silencing Inmate Voices

Prison Law Office Attorney Corene Kendrick represents Arizona inmates in the Parsons class action lawsuit. She said the new media policy “practically silences their voices.”

“The value of hearing from incarcerated people and the people who work in the prisons is that they’re the ones living the reality,” Kendrick said. “It’s imperative that both groups have the ability to blow the whistle, especially when the prisons are consuming so much of the state’s budget.”

Kendrick says the public has an interest in knowing what is actually happening in the prisons, and the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified that need.

She said restricting media communications with inmates to mail is problematic “given their long history of retaliation against incarcerated people who criticize the conditions that they’re living in.”

Kendrick said the Prison Law Office has repeatedly taken the Department of Corrections to court over allegations the prison opens inmate legal mail. “To this day we hear from our clients who say ‘Your letter was delivered to me opened’ or that documents we sent them have gone missing,” Kendrick said.

“I think it’s important for the general public to literally hear the voices of incarcerated people,” Kendrick said of inmate interviews with the press. “Because it shows to you that, this is a human being that is locked up in these conditions in the name of the people of Arizona.”

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