Why Don't You Ever See TV Interviews With Inmates?

A Supreme Court decision 40 years ago this summer allowed states to block access to specific prisoners. What does that mean for freedom of the press and our justice system?
Thierry Ehrmann/Flickr

In 1972, Angela Davis was interviewed on film for television from the basement of the San Rafael County Prison. She was being held under charges of conspiracy, kidnapping, and first-degree murder—for a crime she was neither complicit in nor present for. Davis had been in prison since 1970, three months after 17-year-old Jonathan Jackson held a courtroom hostage, kidnapping the judge and three jurors with firearms licensed in Davis’s name. The incident left Jackson, the judge, and two inmates dead, and at the time, California state law held “anyone who aid[ed] a major crime as guilty as the direct participants.” Davis went on the lam but was captured and jailed three months later.

Her interview took place in a powder blue cement-block cell. In the video, she’s pale, her lips cracked and gummy, but she’s angled fiercely forward. Cigarette smoke curls between her and the interlocutor, Swedish journalist Bo Holmstrum. Mentioning her participation in the Black Panther Party, Holmstrum asks Davis whether she thinks violence is the right way to achieve justice for black Americans.

She smiles. “Oh, is that the question you were asking?” And then she laughs.

See, that’s the other thing. When most people think of revolution, they think of violence, without realizing that the real content of any kind of revolutionary thrust lies in the principles and goals you’re striving for, not how you reach them. On the other hand, because of the way this society is organized, because of the violence that exists on the surface everywhere, you have to expect that there are going to be such explosions .… I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama .… I remember the sound of bombs exploding across the street, I remember my house shaking. I remember my father having to have guns at his disposal at all times because of the fact that at any moment we might expect to be attacked .… So when someone asks me about violence, I just find it incredible, because what it means is that the person who's asking that question has absolutely no idea what black people have gone through, what black people have experienced in this country...

I first saw this interview in the 2011 documentary The Black Power Mix-Tape. While I found Davis’ ethical indictment of her questioner—and by virtue the viewers, too—regal and chilling and still deeply relevant, I was also stunned by the realization that I had never in my lifetime seen an inmate interviewed on TV.

This summer marks the 40th anniversary of Pell v. Procunier, in which four prisoners and three journalists challenged the constitutionality of what was a recently revised section of the California Department of Corrections Manual which states that “[p]ress and other media interviews with specific inmates will not be permitted.”

The plaintiffs lost. On June 24, 1974, the Supreme Court held that the regulation did not violate the freedom of the press guaranteed by the First or 14th Amendments. The primary argument was that because there are other means of direct communication (for instance, by mail or through inmates’ attorneys and loved ones) the rights of neither prisoners nor the press were impeded.

In many ways, the ruling was a product of the social turbulence of the 1970s. In less than a decade, there had been five major prison riots, multiple organized liberation efforts for political prisoners, and media exposure of prison abuses, including revelations of lethal medical experimentation on inmates that had gone on for decades. The failings of the correctional system were visible to even the most politically apathetic American and the negative publicity threatened to discredit state correctional boards.

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Adrian Shirk is a writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in The AirshipWilder Quarterly, and Packet.

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