“Each prison is a fiefdom, and the warden is at the top of the feudal system.”
That’s how Gary Fields, who covered criminal justice for The Wall Street Journal, put it in 2012, discussing the government policies and practices that make it difficult for journalists to report on prisons, jails, and other detention centers.
Press access to such facilities has been in the news because of the searing coverage of detention centers for migrant children. Officials have generally forbidden the journalists touring them from using recording equipment or conducting interviews with the children there.
It is tempting to see the limited access as an especially Trumpian trouble, of a piece with an administration that has labored since day one to delegitimize and marginalize the press. But the problem of press access to prisons and the like, as Fields signals, is a chronic one.
More than 2 million people are incarcerated in the United States, more than in any other country in the world, and tens of billions of taxpayer dollars are spent annually to keep them there. Rape occurs behind bars. Murder and assault, too. Solitary confinement can cause mental and physical suffering. It’s not uncommon for facility conditions to incubate disease. And the vast majority of inmates will eventually re-enter their communities. What happens in penal institutions is a matter of public concern.
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