La Department of Correction agrees to ease prisoner interview restrictions

Published: Apr. 19, 2018 at 6:52 PM CDT
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The Department of Corrections has agreed to ease restrictions on prisoner interviews to settle a lawsuit filed by a student journalist and the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana.

Christopher Lowery, a former project coordinator for the Wrongful Conviction Project at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication, filed the suit last year after department officials denied his request to interview Angola inmate Darold Hines.

The complaint, filed in September in U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge, said that Lowery, a graduate student investigating alleged wrongful convictions, and Hines, an Angola inmate convicted in a 1994 shooting in Plaquemine, La., had been trying to arrange an in-person interview since December 2015. Hines asserts that he was wrongfully convicted.

The Department of Corrections repeatedly rejected requests by Lowery and Hines to arrange the interview.

Department regulations had previously prohibited media interviews that discussed the details of an incarcerated individual’s alleged crimes, citing its consideration for the feelings of victims and their family members.

Bruce Hamilton, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Louisiana, said the policy violated Lowery’s right to report on issues of public concern and Hines’ right to speak and seek post-conviction relief.

“Darold Hines has a right to tell his story, and Christopher Lowery has a right to report it,” Hamilton wrote in a news release Wednesday. “Today’s settlement is a victory for government transparency, for a free and independent press, and for the right of all people, including people in prison, to speak out and make their voices heard.”

New Orleans attorney Scott Sternberg also represented the plaintiffs and said the policy amounted to a content-based restriction on expression.

Referring to Corrections officials, Sternberg said: “To their credit, they took a look at our complaint and they agreed with that. Instead of long, protracted and expensive litigation, the state just that it would be easier for us to come up with a policy that doesn’t discriminate based on content.”

The settlement states that the department will delete the regulation from its publications and internal memoranda.

Ken Pastorick, communications director for the department, said the two sides “reached a mutual agreement on the regulation at issue, and the department upholds this agreement.”