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  • Stephen Swartz

During a pandemic, Arizona restricts incarcerated people’s right to talk to media

By: Stephen Swartz, Smart Justice Supporter.

At a time when Arizonans are calling for more transparency from the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation, and Reentry, Director David Shinn silently changed ADCRR’s media policy making it far more difficult for incarcerated people to talk to reporters and reducing what little transparency exists within the Department.

It’s never been simple or safe for people in prison to talk to reporters in Arizona. When I was incarcerated in the early 1990s, prison administration retaliated against me for exposing the Department’s practices of overcharging for phone calls. They attempted to silence my voice after I’d talked to media. Now they are trying to silence people’s voices before they even get that chance.

On July 9th, Director Shinn made changes to Department Order 207 blatantly imposing new impediments to incarcerated people’s right to free speech and restricting reporter’s means of communication with those behind the walls of ADCRR.

People in prison previously could talk to media on the phone for free. They are now forced to pay the same standard fee they pay for other phone calls to talk to reporters. Additionally, ADCRR has imposed a long approval process and a $25 fee for reporters who want to interview incarcerated people over the phone.

This policy change seems like a clear attempt to hide what is happening behind bars during the current health crisis. Earlier this year, incarcerated people spoke directly to reporters and exposed the truth about ADCRR’s startling lack of COVID-19 precautions. After their stories were brought to light, Gov. Ducey finally required both corrections officers and incarcerated people to wear masks and to order increased testing in the prisons.

It took courage for these incarcerated folks to speak out. Any kind of correspondence between incarcerated people and the media has never been protected communication like legal mail. It has always been a risk for incarcerated people, and it has always been subject to the whims of corrections officers who process, inspect, read, and sometimes censor incoming and outgoing correspondence.

To put even more restrictions on people’s speech at a time when transparency is so crucial due to COVID-19 will ensure that the most at-risk populations in jails and prisons are further put in harm’s way.

Gov. Ducey should ask one key question from Director Shinn: Why? Why is Director Shinn further restricting communication between incarcerated people and the media? Why is he decreasing transparency during a pandemic?

ADCRR has long shied away from transparency to avoid exposing the horrendous living conditions within state prisons. In order to have true transparency, people directly impacted by ADCRR’s conditions, practices, and policies must be able to easily and openly communicate with the media. This communication should be encouraged, facilitated, and protected, not stifled.

I am calling on Gov. Ducey to direct Director Shinn to reverse the changes made to Department Order 207 because it inhibits constitutional rights without reason and keeps the truth from being known.

Further, I believe a new policy should be enacted supporting and protecting free speech and any incarcerated persons right to communicate with the media. This is the only way to true transparency.

Stephen Swartz is a formerly incarcerated Arizonan and was a plaintiff in the ACLU of Arizona’s prison health care lawsuit, Parsons v. Shinn.

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