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Prison system excuse for banning journalists is lame

Editorial, Houston Chronicle, Jan. 7 2004

Officials at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, out of the blue and on the flimsiest of pretenses, have begun enforcing an all-but-forgotten rule against nonacademic book authors interviewing inmates. While this might seem to affect only a tiny group of writers, all Texans have a compelling interest in having their public institutions allow reasonable access by journalists of all sorts.

TDCJ's sole justification for barring authors is that it serves its own convenience. Its policy is inexcusable and should be changed.

The new director of the prison system's public information office, Mike Viesca, told Chronicle reporter Mike Tolson that book authors need more than an hour to conduct their interviews, and he doesn't want to burden prison employees with such lengthy monitoring duty. And, Viesca said, his office does not have time to verify credentials from all the people who claim to be authors and want to talk to inmates.

These supposed hurdles never presented problems until Viesca took over leadership of the public information office. Nevertheless, both are easily dealt with. TDCJ could place reasonable time limits on interview sessions, and officials could require a letter from a publisher, copy of a book contract or title of previously published work to verify an author's bona fides.

Whether book authors, including true crime writers, are journalists is not much of an open question. The fact that they have longer deadlines than newspaper, television, radio or magazine journalists does not mean that they are not actual journalists entitled to equal treatment.

No state governmental agency, including TDCJ, ought to be able to ban book writers' access with the excuse that "it's just too much trouble." If that were a valid rationale, what's to stop any government official in any office or jurisdiction from barring the door to all print and broadcast media?

The public has a right to the kind of information that crime book authors can get only through face-to-face interviews with their subjects - even when those subjects are incarcerated killers and con artists. Crime is de facto a topic of great public interest, and crime authors can provide the kind of detail on this subject that journalists for more immediate forms of media typically cannot.

TDCJ's stance on the matter would seem to preclude not only book authors whose interest is the ins and outs of particular crimes, but authors interested in interviewing inmates about prison conditions or their experiences in the criminal justice system, issues of enormous importance to taxpayers.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has declined to offer a legal opinion on this pernicious attack on freedom of information, saying his office has no authority to alter a policy set by the governing body of TDCJ.

But surely Texas' open government laws are not so porous that a state entity supported by billions in taxpayer revenue can set up arbitrary rules to bar legitimate journalists from reporting to the public on what goes on within that entity.
TDCJ should immediately rethink and rehabilitate its position on this.

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