This piece was originally published in the Winter 2020 print issue.
In 2019, an intern for WUNC, the National Public Radio member station for a large swath of central and eastern North Carolina, wrote to ask if I would consent to a taped interview for a show on local politics and culture called The State of Things. The segment would cover my writing on North Carolina’s abolished parole system, as described in an article I wrote for Issue 16 of Scalawag, “Paroling Michael Pinch.” I agreed to a telephone interview, assuming nothing else was needed. The show’s producer, however, felt obliged to contact the Department of Public Safety (NCDPS) Communications Office. I never heard from the radio station again.*
As a North Carolina prisoner since 1997, I have witnessed the deterioration of the penal system from the inside. The neglect of North Carolina prisons can be laid at the feet of lawmakers who implemented the Structured Sentencing Act, which effectively abolished parole in 1994, removing incentives for good conduct and lengthening the amount of time people spent incarcerated. By 2004, North Carolina’s carceral population tripled. Facilities grew crowded, dysfunctional, and violent while state legislators ignored the consequences, and the public remained oblivious. The story of what has been going on in North Carolina’s penal system has always been available to those looking for it, but not necessarily accessible.
Freedom of the press does not fully extend into prisons. Members of the media cannot interview prisoners at will or freely investigate troubling events as they do with the general public. In North Carolina, journalists must go through a convoluted bureaucratic process to enter a prison or talk with a prisoner. Access is never guaranteed. Most information comes from the NCDPS Communications Office, designated prison officials, or the NCDPS website. The public has a right to know what happens in state prisons, but how can they when the information comes from a single, limited source?
As a North Carolina prisoner since 1997, I have witnessed the deterioration of the penal system from the inside.
Violence in prisons is nothing new, so the lack of attention can be partly excused. Nevertheless, in 2017, after five North Carolina prison officers died in the line of duty, the violence could no longer be ignored. Reporting and legislative oversight focused on training and filling staffing vacancies. A report commissioned by the governor's crime commission, and creation of the prison reform advisory board, seemed to quell calls by some lawmakers for the national guard to man the walls and protect the public.
Since then, three prisoners have been killed in North Carolina prisons: Two at Columbus Correctional Institution in Whiteville and one at Maury Correctional Institution in Greene County. There was no uproar over these deaths. They were not even linked to the bevy of reporting on a penal system in crisis. That prison officers lives are valued more than prisoners has never been in doubt, but any death linked by the same cause should be a matter of concern reflected in the reporting. Was this failure to connect prisoner and officer deaths attributable to shoddy coverage? Or, have NCPDS and U.S. Supreme Court restrictions on press access in prison so discouraged journalists that they are satisfied with parroting the penal narrative?
An illustration, by the author, of how information moves in prison.
Controlling the narrative
In trying to understand why WUNC never followed up with me about the interview, I discovered an extensive NCDPS policy that governs public relations and media access in prison. While the general policy facilitates public immediate access by “reasonable“ means, “factors that compromise security, disrupt orderly administration, damage morale, and/or mitigate against the effectiveness of correctional treatment may limit that access.”
Even prison officials are not completely free to speak with the media unless they coordinate what will be said with the Communications Office. Interviews with prisoners are subject to numerous restrictions. Access to death row prisoners, for example, requires written consent of the prisoner and his or her attorney, agreement from the warden, Director of Prisons, and the Communications Office. Reporting on the state’s penal system is usually done by newspapers like the Charlotte Observer and the Raleigh News and Observer. The reliance on newspapers may be because camera footage in prison is highly restricted. Often, the public will only see outside shots of the fence, wall, and building, or old stock footage of blurred faces and closing doors, the cameras angled at prisoners’ feet. Prisoners’ faces cannot be shown without prior approval from prison officials in written consent from the prisoner. Unless it’s a feature story about a criminal case, incarcerated citizens are a nameless, faceless, unrepresented mass.
The story of what has been going on in North Carolina’s penal system has always been available to those looking for it, but not necessarily accessible.
This particular media restriction is ironic in light of the tour groups regularly walked through Central Prison and other facilities. Criminal justice student groups, prison officials from other states and countries, legislators, governors, and judges have all observed prisoners in the hallways and chow hall, on the recreation yards and cell blocks. Meanwhile, a ranked officer or the warden spin out the common penal narrative: descriptions of daily operations and security measures that keep “offenders” in check; specific criminal cases in the news and how that offender would be processed in the system; horror stories of “bad guys” intended to further isolate people in prison and justify anything done to them.
North Carolina prison tours give the appearance of transparency, but prisoners are forbidden from communicating with such groups, and punished if they try. After the 2017 prison officer deaths, Republican State Senator Bob Steinburg, head of the Legislative Oversight Committee on Prisons, spoke out against carefully sculpted accounts of these prisons. He warned that withholding information from the public would create greater dangers in North Carolina’s penal system:
“If it’s not going to be brought forward publicly then chances are pretty good that we are not going to ever know what happened and we’re not going to be adequately able to prevent something like this from happening again.”
While First Amendment rights are for free citizens, they narrow significantly for the incarcerated. In several cases between 1974 and 1987 the U.S. Supreme Court restricted press access in prison. The court held that as long as the restrictions are “content neutral,” and other means of communication exist, the press has no special right to information in prisons beyond that of the public, which includes interviews with specific prisoners.
See also: Why we must educate our prisoners
One case in particular addressed the extent to which prison officials could deny information, and what “meaningful” press access means. In Houchins v. KQED (1978) the court held that nothing in the constitution “[compelled] the government to provide the media with information or access to it on demand.”
Some might argue these limitations are reasonable, the journalists are too intrusive, or that specific media outlets are slanted. However, for marginalized groups at the mercy of negligent, failing government agencies, the press are arbiters of the truth who should be able to look under every rock and rotten log — wherever they lie.
Considering the restrictions on media access, and the stigma of having been convicted of a crime, it is difficult for people in prison to challenge the penal narrative. But it’s not impossible. In the 1920s people confined here at Central Prison in Raleigh published the “Prison News,” a newspaper that “told of religious revivals, performances, baseball games, and boxing matches.” On Saturday nights prisoners even hosted a radio program broadcast by Raleigh’s news and talk station WPTF. While these opportunities were likely sanitized by the warden, they were presented early efforts to humanize an incarcerated population, a trend that ended when penal ideology shifted to retributive punishment and incapacitation. A century later, no such programs exist in any of North Carolina’s 55 prisons.
Over the years prisoners have produced writing that has appeared in newspapers, journals, magazines, and books. This represents only a small percentage of millions, many of whom do not have the resources or capacity to publish. Writing for public audiences also depends on which publication circulates the writing. A lot of mainstream publishers are reluctant to get involved with prison writers because they don’t want to be viewed as coddling criminals. The advent of online publishing and social media, without the strict standards of traditional publications, made it somewhat easier for prisoners to be heard. Though a handful of states have made it a crime for prisoners to use social media through a third-party, most have not. Regardless, the internet advances the conversation on mass incarceration in ways the traditional press cannot.
It is time to free the press in prison and give them unrestricted access to North Carolina prisoners and staff.
Online messaging is also a new strategy being promoted and used by the NCDPS. In an October 2019 report on improving NC Prisons from the Prison Reform Advisory Board, there is a sense of urgency behind the “internal and external communication” of their efforts. Some of the initiatives appear to be normal for a large organization trying to attract new employees and increase cohesion within its workforce. For a state agency in crisis after a significant increase in prison violence, corruption among staff, and personnel shortages — other communication strategies smack of propaganda. According to the report, “[a]dditional staff capacity will allow for opportunities to promote “good news“ stories of what’s happening inside facilities and more timely posts on social media.”
Like the Advisory Board’s own report, “good news“ stories propagated by the NCDPS on social media will not discuss issues like prison overcrowding or why, exactly, they would rather hire more people than incarcerate fewer Those “good news“ accounts will gloss over or ignore the continued use of long-term solitary confinement on mentally ill prisoners. If prison violence or the rate of assaults on staff and prisoners do not go down, the NCPDS is unlikely to tweet about it on or post on Facebook. There will be nothing about the lives of prisoners in these “good news“ stories. None of their messaging will warn that upon entering the prisons gates constitutional protections are optional.
The NCDPS “good news“ will be a carefully sculpted narrative given to the press, repeated, retweet it, be posted, and regurgitated to the general public, who will then accept it as gospel because anything contrary is fake news.
It is time to free the press in prison and give them unrestricted access to North Carolina prisoners and staff. Allow the substantial population to contribute to the conversation on its own reformation. Let the general public see and hear what really occurred in its institutions — not just the good news stories or the violent ones. In doing so, lawmakers can better address the needs of the penal system and the people contained within it; the public can evolve its understanding of prisons; and the press can regain its authority as a check and balance against government powers.
*WUNC reached out to Scalawag and said their decision not to move forward with May’s interview was unrelated to their contact with DPS. May responded that he asked the WUNC intern not to contact DPS due to concerns about restrictions on his media access, but never received a response after multiple attempts to contact WUNC.