Minnesota prison officials have identified a form of contraband that’s now off-limits around inmates: news cameras.

A media policy spelled out in February prohibits any photography or videography, reversing a previous rule that allowed inmates, with the approval of the Department of Corrections (DOC), to grant on-camera interviews.

Corrections officials say they made the change to ensure that the news media access policy “aligns” with the contraband policy, which includes cameras, along with pornography, lighters, knives, wrapped packages and other dangerous stuff.

“It wasn’t prompted by any specific event,” agency spokeswoman Sarah Latuseck said in an e-mail. Nor was it prompted by a story, she said.

My concern about the camera ban goes beyond the implications for my own industry. It means that the nearly 10,000 inmates of Minnesota prisons will recede even further from public view, their faces all but invisible.

No one would argue with the need to control the prison environment to ensure the safety of inmates and staff. But banning cameras from interviews with consenting inmates is “absurd,” said Gregg Leslie, legal defense director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The Washington-based advocacy group has fought to maintain the media’s access to inmates. Leslie said the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed that inmates do retain speech rights, and by extension the ability to communicate with reporters.

The outspokenness of a well-known inmate serving a life sentence for murdering a police officer led to a backlash in Pennsylvania, where the Legislature last year passed a law that bans convicts from inflicting “mental anguish” on their victims.

Leslie said the Reporters Committee is joining civil liberties advocates in fighting that law as a restriction of free speech.

That same backlash is part of the logic of the DOC. Corrections officials would accept and answer only written questions from me. Aside from the contraband issue, Latuseck wrote, the policy change is “also good practice for other reasons. Victims and their families are re-victimized by seeing an offender’s face in the media.”

The DOC also thinks the photo ban will help inmates, even if they don’t realize it now, get a job in the future. “Having offender pictures on the Internet into perpetuity can be detrimental to this goal,” Latuseck wrote.

The camera ban comes two years after the Star Tribune published a multimedia series, “Young and Armed,” about the scourge of gun violence among juveniles. That project began with interviews in 2012 of two dozen offenders in Minnesota prisons. Many of them allowed us to take video or still photos, and the images of these young inmates, describing the wreckage of their lives, had a power that words alone would not capture.

Under the new policy, no media organization could do such a project.

It’s ironic that the ban on inmate photography comes at a moment when the Minnesota courts are poised to allow cameras in courtrooms for criminal sentencings and other post-conviction hearings.

Despite the prohibition on photography, images of inmates are still available to the general public. Those are the prison mug shots, displayed on the DOC website.

 

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116. Read his blog at startribune.com/fulldisclosure.