This week has been busy at the Daily Item, with one of our reporters being denied a visit to the most infamous Northumberland County Prison inmate – Miranda Barbour.
It’s raised a lot of questions about prisoner rights, media rights and the rights of elected officials.
The article – by reporter Francis Scarcella – is below. Let me know what you think:
SUNBURY — Asked why a journalist is being denied the opportunity to visit an inmate, the commander of Northumberland County Prison on Tuesday said simply, “Because.”
Northumberland County Prison does not have a clear policy to support Brian Wheary’s denial.
Wheary was at the jailhouse Tuesday when The Daily Item arrived to discuss details about a possible interview with murder suspect Miranda Barbour.
Sunbury police accuse Barbour, 19, of Selinsgrove, of fatally stabbing Troy LaFerrara, 42, of Port Trevorton, in November after she said he tried to grope and grab her.
A letter received by The Daily Item purportedly from Barbour authorized a request for a journalist to speak with her.
After arriving at the city jail Tuesday to inquire about the time for the interview, The Daily Item representative was rejected by Wheary, who asked whether the newspaper was a friend of Barbour’s.
Wheary went on to tell the journalist that Barbour’s visitation list did include the name of the reporter, so access was prohibited.
Name is on list
Barbour’s letter dated Jan. 3 clearly states the reporter’s name is included on her visitation list and that she granted an interview.
Wheary was questioned whether Barbour was a troubled inmate or was being disciplined.
“No,” Wheary replied.
Barbour is an active member of the Northumberland County female inmate book club, sources said.
Wheary became visibly upset after repeated questions about why the jailhouse administration was controlling the visitation rights of Barbour. Wheary then surrounded himself with several corrections officers when questioned whether other inmates are denied visitation or whether Barbour was being singled out.
“No comment,” Wheary yelled while ordering guards to open the front door of the prison and let the reporter out.
Calls were then placed to Northumberland County Commissioner and then-prison board Chairman Steve Bridy, who said he would try to find out why the media was denied access.
“After speaking with the warden, (Roy Johnson) and District Attorney Tony Rosini, I have been told visitation is a privilege and not a right,” Bridy said.
“I was also told you (the newspaper) were not on the visitation list.”
According to the letter sent by Barbour from the county prison, the reporter’s name was placed on the list and the reporter was supposed to schedule the interview because Barbour would have no way of knowing whether the newspaper was denied.
In her letter, Barbour claims she wanted to speak against her public defender’s advice, and that she would not discuss anything she was not allowed to say. Barbour was advised by Northumberland County public defender Paige Rosini and Ed Greco to reject requests for interviews.
Paige Rosini declined comment about her client granting access to the media, and said she would advise Barbour to continue to remain silent.
DA in dark over letter
Tony Rosini, who told the newspaper that the reporter’s name was not on the list, was unaware of the letter sent by Barbour requesting the interview.
“I know what I can and can’t (should or shouldn’t) say,” Barbour wrote. “You can ask any questions you may have for me, but I won’t be able to answer them all yet.”
Inmates usually put names of friends and family on a list and those individuals need to provide a valid driver’s license upon entry to the jail.
In Northumberland County, when an inmate places a person’s name on a visitation list, the prison makes a phone call to inform that person, Wheary said.
Several former inmates and their relatives on Tuesday said they knew nothing about any policy about phone calls made to friends or family of inmates.
Johnson, the warden, was not at work Tuesday and did not return a phone call.
As of late-afternoon Tuesday, Tony Rosini, who cooperated with the newspaper, continued an email conversation with Gary Grossman, The Daily Item publisher, and wrote that Greco was trying to confirm that Barbour wrote the letter and requested to speak with the reporter.
The Daily Item reporter never informed Wheary that a letter from Barbour had been written.
During a Northumberland County Prison board meeting Wednesday, Grossman asked about the policy for visiting inmates.
Don’t set precedent
“If we open the door for one media member, then we have to for everyone,” Johnson said.
If the inmate requests a specific visitor, why would that have anything to do with any media in general? Grossman asked.
“There is a distinction due to security consideration at the prison. If we open it up to one reporter, we have to open it up to all,” Johnson said.
Johnson gave no specific reason why Barbour was denied her interview.
Grossman continued to press Johnson, asking why a reporter requested to come to the jail by an inmate somehow triggered the topic of press availability.
As the conversation started to become uncomfortable, Tony Rosini, a member of the prison board, told Grossman, “I don’t think this is the place to discuss the prison access policy.”
Then prison board meeting then adjourned.
Inmates can be denied visitation if they are a disciplinary problem, but when Wheary was asked about Barbour on Tuesday, he said she wasn’t in trouble.
Columbia: Interviews OK
In Columbia County, where Barbour’s husband, Elytte Barbour is being held, a request was made to speak with a reporter and as of Wednesday, Columbia County officials said as long as the reporter’s name is on the list and he or she can present a driver’s licence, the jail had no problem with the timed visit.
Union: Interviews OK
In Union County Jail, Warden Doug Shaffer said the lockup is a small one and only immediate family is allowed to visit inmates, but there is an exception.
“If an inmate asks to speak with a reporter and that inmate lists the person on his visiting list, then I let the reporter in,” Shaffer said.
“I’ve done it with The Daily Item in the past. As long as they provide the proper documents they are allowed in. It is a way for the media to print what the inmate is saying if they choose.”
Snyder: Interviews OK
In Snyder County Prison, Warden Ruth Rush said because the visiting room is so small, inmates are allowed visits from immediate family only during certain times. Attorneys can visit any time and pastors are also allowed visitation.
The prison’s policy also permits inmates to meet face-to-face with reporters at the jail. The inmate must agree to the interview and to whether they will allow their names to be printed and their photographs taken.
Asked whether there would be any reason an inmate would be denied a visit from a journalist, Rush said, no. If an inmate expressed an interest in speaking with the media, “I’d probably call you.”
On the state level, reporters have the same access to an inmate as do an inmate’s family members and friends, according to the state Department of Corrections website.
“To visit a specific inmate, a reporter should write to the inmate and ask the inmate to place his or her name on the inmate’s visiting list. The reporter should also ask the inmate to let him or her know once his or her name appears on the visiting list. Once added to the visiting list, the reporter may make arrangements with the inmate to visit him or her. Reporters follow the same rules as all other visitors.
“Individuals identified as reporters on the visiting list are permitted to take a reporter’s notepad and pencil into the visiting area.”