On Aug. 1, a stolen pickup truck driven by a suspected shoplifter veered into a median on Interstate 40 west of Albuquerque, N.M. The driver, 19-year-old Zachariah Craig, was trying to avoid a spike belt laid down by New Mexico state police officer Kenneth Aragon. The truck struck Aragon and killed him. Police arrested Craig, as well as his brother, Aron, who allegedly took part in the thefts but had jumped out of the truck before it went on its fatal run. That evening, Albuquerque Journal reporter Miguel Navrot took a call from the newsroom. He’d drawn the assignment of covering the Craigs’ initial court appearances in the town of Grants, N.M. “I got a call from my editor the night before to go to Grants and check it out,” he said. “I just assumed I’d be able to sit quietly in the courtroom and take notes.” What Navrot hadn’t counted on was that the appearances of Zachariah and Aron Craig would not take place in the Cibola County courthouse in Grants. Instead, Cibola County Magistrate Jackie Fisher conducted the appearance inside the walls of the privately operated Cibola County Corrections Center, with no media or public observers. “It was the first time I’d ever dealt with it,” Navrot said of the prison. “I got to the gate and was stopped by a guard. There was no traditional guard station, just two guys in a van. They said they wouldn’t be able to let me in.” Navrot wasn’t the only one taken by surprise by the jailhouse court proceeding. Four television stations sent crews who also were kept at the gate. Eventually, assistant warden Don Russell emerged to talk to the reporters and give them a brief summary of what had happened inside: the charges had been read, Zachariah Craig had been denied bail, while Magistrate Fisher set Aron Craig’s bond at $1 million.
The New Mexico reporters hadn’t realized that the appearances had taken place under a year-old agreement between the prison and the Cibola County magistrates, under which all initial appearances occur at the prison. An Associated Press story quoted Magistrate Eliseo Alcon of Grants saying the pact came about because he and Fisher became worried about having too many prisoners and law officers crammed into their small joint courtroom. Location was just the first problem for the reporters trying to cover the Craigs’ court appearance. Timing was the second. Although the New Mexico journalists would have arrived in a timely fashion at the county courthouse, they fell outside the agreement’s provisions for visitors at the corrections center. For security reasons, the private prison requires all visitors (except judges) to apply for admittance 24 hours in advance so applicants can be screened. The reporters, some of whom learned of the initial appearance that morning, never had a chance. Their experience underscores SPJ’s concerns about journalists’ access to prisons. Any legal proceeding that takes place out of view of the public (that is to say, journalists) runs counter to American precepts of justice. The fact that the Craigs’ subsequent court appearances will take place in a county courthouse doesn’t erase the problem. Bob Johnson of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government summed up the situation this way: “It was a ridiculous flouting of the prisoner’s rights and the public’s rights. For a private prison to dictate what happens at a public proceeding makes no sense.” Albuquerque attorney Marty Esquivel, who handles open records and open meetings issues, said jailhouse court proceedings raise a red flag for First Amendment concerns as well as the defendant’s rights to a fair trial. As SPJ has documented over the past few years, reporters across the country have had a difficult enough time getting access to prisons and prisoners for interviews and general news purposes. Allowing judges at any level to conduct judicial proceedings behind the walls of a closed, private facility is just, simply, wrong.
Ian Marquand is special projects coordinator for the Montana Television Network. He is chairman of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.