POLITICS
07/01/2015 02:52 pm ET

This Is Why Americans Have No Idea What Really Happens In Prisons

Bill Pugliano via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- When Kalief Browder killed himself last month after being held for three years without trial at Rikers Island, Americans took notice. His death focused more attention on the appalling treatment of youthful inmates at the New York City jail complex. But Browder, who entered the system at 16, was only one of thousands of teenagers held in adult lockups across the United States. We have very little idea what happens to the rest of them.

Most Americans -- aside from the millions who are locked inside, work inside or regularly visit people inside -- couldn’t even tell you where the nearest prison is, let alone detail what happens there. And that's by design. Reporting on prisons is made difficult because prison officials say that making too much information public will jeopardize the safety of institutions. In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prisons can restrict journalists' access to inmates.

The Huffington Post ran into multiple roadblocks during the months we spent reporting this week’s Highline feature, which details the experiences of youthful inmates held in the adult prison system in Michigan. While we were permitted to interview inmates, we were forbidden to bring a camera or recorder and the state attorney general’s office issued (and later withdrew) two subpoenas for our handwritten notes. Media relations staff at the Michigan Department of Corrections were helpful, but nonetheless, all our requests for tours and one-on-one interviews with corrections staff were denied.

That’s still better than Illinois, which repeatedly denied access to journalists trying to investigate prison overcrowding and vermin infestations in 2012, or California, where reporters cannot request face-to-face interviews with specific inmates, only randomly selected ones. These are taxpayer-funded institutions -- imagine if Congress operated this way. Rather than interview, say, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) for a story, a journalist could only interview a “Democrat.”

Reporting on prisons also raises retaliation concerns, be it staff-on-inmate, staff-on-staff or inmate-on-inmate. JPay, the electronic communications system used by corrections facilities in many states, is routinely monitored by staff, as are phone calls and snail mail. Censorship can be secret and arbitrary. This year, the Indiana Department of Correction allegedly blocked a woman from contacting her brother through JPay after he used the service to send her a video asking for support at his next court hearing.

Youthful inmates in Michigan worry about raising complaints through JPay because of staff monitoring. Their concerns appear to be grounded in reality. In ongoing litigation over its treatment of youthful inmates, MDOC has cited the content of 200 messages that lawyers had sent to inmates over JPay. Journalists are accustomed to working with whistleblowers who have a lot to lose, but when an inmate’s communications are read by the institution under scrutiny, the challenge is formidable. Given the possible consequences, reporting misconduct may simply not be worth it for some prisoners.

In Michigan, one inmate alleged that after he reported being assaulted by a corrections officer in 2013, he ended up in a cell with feces in the footlocker and was deprived of water for days, as well as meals and showers. (MDOC denied this allegation and others in a legal filing, noting that “the injuries and damages sustained by Plaintiffs, if any, were solely or partly a result of their own conduct” in disobeying prison officials and rules.)

Then there’s the question of documentation. Journalists know that the key to good reporting is often a hefty load of documents, which are not easy to obtain about prisons. Not everything that you'd reasonably expect to find written down is easily available. The 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act required facilities to collect aggregate data on sexual abuse, for example, but reporting gaps remain. In Michigan, youth-specific sexual assault data are not easily available, and correctional officers don’t have to file critical incident reports every time a taser is deployed.

Even when documentation is available, getting it through the Freedom of Information Act can be cost-prohibitive. Michigan asked us for more than $76,000 to fulfill all of our routine reporting requests. (For example, the price tag to obtain the number of physical assaults committed by MDOC officers against kids over a recent 14-month period? $15,088.) This isn’t because the Michigan FOIA office is running a racket, but rather because information is organized in ways that make it difficult and time-consuming to search.

What's more, the FOIA counterparts in many other states -- such as Connecticut, Virginia and Illinois -- often don't cover documents describing prisoner management and discipline. Both state and federal versions of the law have certain security exemptions. Officials can claim that releasing the details of prison policies would allow inmates to exploit those policies. The logic goes that if you show prisoners the procedures on the proper use of tasers, they might somehow devise a way to avoid getting tased.

The Huffington Post still managed to get ahold of plenty of documents, but the issue remains: If we had trouble navigating the FOIA system when it’s our full-time job, how is the rest of the public supposed to do it?

Margo Schlanger, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School who focuses on civil and criminal detention, said that prisoners and their family members are so disempowered that they can’t effectively demand accountability. The public, she added, can’t expect prisons to become more transparent and accountable unless they are “pressured to do that by outside forces that they respect or are beholden to.”

Transparency isn’t only a question of reporting on what happens to inmates; it’s also a matter of public safety. When two inmates escaped from Clinton Correctional Facility in New York state last month, The New York Times reported that security lapses may have aided their escape -- lapses that the public knew nothing about until a breach occurred.

“It’s possible to build a system that has some windows inside, but is still locked,” Schlanger said.

Maybe if the public had seen inside Rikers sooner, Browder’s life would have turned out differently. Let's hope the stories of other youthful inmates will be uncovered before it’s too late.

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