Nationally-recognized journalist James Ridgeway, currently a reporter for Mother Jones Magazine, has been granted access to Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Ridgeway's initial request to visit was denied, because Angola officials questioned articles that he had written, some of which were critical of the prison. Ridgeway's access to Angola was secured after the ACLU of Louisiana intervened on his behalf. Mr. Ridgeway will tour Angola on December 1, 2010.
Although journalists do not have an unqualified right to access prisons, the First Amendment requires that the prison not retaliate against journalists with whom it disagrees. Likewise, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections policy allows media "reasonable access to the state's correctional facilities unless security considerations dictate otherwise."
In March 2010 Ridgeway wrote to Angola Warden Burl Cain specifying the areas he wanted to visit and the general subject of his planned article. Ridgeway's request was denied by Assistant Warden Cathy Fontenot, who said in an email that "we won't be approving your request to visit and interview at Angola. . .we feel that you have not in the past, despite your ability to do so, reported accurately on Angola." Ms. Fontenot declined, when asked, to identify any specific inaccuracies in Ridgeway's reporting. Through extensive investigation, the ACLU was able to document that other journalists-presumptively those that the prison feels report favorably-have consistently been granted access identical to that sought by Ridgeway, as have members of the general public.
On August 11, 2010, the ACLU of Louisiana wrote Warden Cain reminding him that Angola is legally obligated to provide all reporters access and cannot discriminate based on the content of prior reporting or other content-based criteria. "The government violates the First Amendment when it denies access to a jail or prison based on the content of a speaker's prior speech," said ACLU of Louisiana Legal Director Katie Schwartzmann in the letter to Cain. "Restrictions on press access to prisons cannot be based on the content of a reporter's articles or an individual's viewpoint." On October 29, 2010, Warden Cain replied granting Mr. Ridgeway access as requested.
James Ridgeway said, "I'm glad the warden has now recognized my right--and the right of any journalist--to report from inside Angola. I look forward to my visit, and in particular to interviewing Warden Cain."
"It's important for the public to know what goes on in our prisons," said ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director Marjorie R. Esman. "James Ridgeway is a distinguished reporter who has the right to tour Angola just as anyone else can. Warden Cain has no legal right to censor Mr. Ridgeway or anyone else. The ACLU shouldn't have had to intervene just to allow Mr. Ridgeway access to areas routinely visited by the general public."
Copies of the correspondence between the ACLU and Angola State Penitentiary can be found on the following pages: