Since August 2017, the Arkansas Times has asked to interview 15 inmates incarcerated within the Arkansas Department of Correction. All of those requests were denied.
The ADC said eight were denied because the inmate was being punished. Six were denied because, according to an ADC spokesman, approving an interview “would place a burden on the Department’s limited resources.” And in one case an interview was denied because, between the time of the request and a response, the inmate died.
“Any news media visit can be denied, canceled or restricted by the Director or Warden if there are security concerns based on present circumstances or concerns regarding subject matter,” the department’s interview guidelines state. Potential subject matter prohibitions include “pending appeals or legal matters related to the inmate’s criminal conviction.” And if in “punitive/administrative segregation [the inmate is] not eligible for in-person news media interviews,” the guidelines say. It also states that “requests that … would impose a burden on the agency’s limited resources will be denied.”
The Arkansas Times has complained to the ADC that the policy allows for any inmate interview to be denied because all requests could be construed to cause a burden.
“The Department’s policy for news media visits with inmates is not ‘impossible to meet,’ ” Solomon Graves, public information officer for the ADC, said. “It simply considers the media’s reasonable expectation of access
The ADC says it does not track how many inmate interview requests are approved or denied each year. But Graves told the Times “since January 1, 2017, the Department has granted media representatives access to interview inmates.”
Graves says there are other ways to talk to inmates without an inmate interview approved by ADC.
“Those options are regular visitation, telephone calls, video visitation, email and traditional mail,” he said.
But these methods have flaws. Regular visitation hours are limited to weekends and a reporter is not allowed to bring a notebook or a recorder. Phone calls, video visitation
ADC regulations also do not allow anyone except family members to be on the visitation list of more than one inmate in the prison system.
When I was gathering information on a reporting project that involved multiple sources, I was forced to regularly switch between visitation lists via hard copy forms sent in through the mail. The ADC does not allow reporters to call and ask to be put on a visitation list. (Originally, it took six months between dropping from one visitation list to be added to another, but I successfully lobbied the ADC to change its policy to allow the Times to place a phone call to be dropped from the list and then mail a hard copy form to be added to the new list.)
News media interviews with inmates are categorized as “special visits” — the same subsection of ADC policy that pertains to lawyers visiting a client. Since interviews are still visits, according to spokesperson Solomon Graves, “media visits are subject to the normal visitation rules and restrictions.”
So, like normal visitation, news media interview requests are contingent on an inmate’s privileges. Punishments restrict those privileges.
For example, the Times was denied an interview with an inmate at the Cummins Unit because the inmate was “only allowed non-contact visits through November 2018,” said Graves, and “the Cummins Unit was not built with an onsite non-contact visitation option.”
The administrative regulation on news media from the Arkansas Board of Corrections, which oversees ADC, says that ADC should “provide representatives of the news media with access to the maximum extent possible compatible with their orderly administration.”
The Times has also asked for a tour of multiple facilities; all requests for this have been denied. The Times asked to interview certain correctional officers and staff members. All interview questions were required to be routed through a spokesperson and answered by email.
The Times has also on multiple occasions asked to speak with ADC Director Wendy Kelley, but all questions were required to be sent to a spokesperson and answered via email. When the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette interviewed Kelley, an agency head, it was billed as an “exclusive interview.” Apparently, this public servant can decide which members of the public she will serve.