Criminals’ stories do not end when they’re put behind bars.
But with the little access South Dakota prisons currently offer to media, the parts of their stories we're able to tell are often forced to end when someone is put under Department of Corrections supervision. While the DOC clearly has a responsibility to keep its facilities secure and keep close track of who is coming and going, it's still a public agency, and it shouldn't be able to be as stringent as it is with media access.
I didn't think a story on first-degree manslaughter sentences in South Dakota, a state that allows longer maximum prison terms for the charge than almost any other state, would be complete without talking to someone who was actually serving one of those sentences. When I finally got to sit down with Joaquin Ramos in the South Dakota State Penitentiary after about two months of trying to do so, because of the parameters of visitation, I didn’t have a notebook or any kind of recorder with me, as I would for any other interview.
Instead, the only record of our conversation was the voice memo I made on my phone after leaving the prison, listing everything I could remember. I’m sure it includes only a small fraction of what we discussed.
I spoke with Ramos after the prison approved a special visit request, which authorizes visits from people approved by an inmate but not on their regular visitation list. The first time I submitted the request, Ramos mailed it from the prison to his uncle in Florida, who mailed it to me. I then filled it out and mailed it back to the penitentiary. It was rejected.
Admittedly, some of the blame for this was my fault. On the form I filled out, I made the mistake of writing down The Daily Republic’s address, not my home address. My application was rejected because that address didn’t match the address associated with my driver’s license number, which I also had to submit. It was a frustrating setback, but was arguably my error.
Ramos resubmitted my request later on, when a different person was responsible for reviewing visitation requests, and it was approved. But before that, I considered the route of a media visitation request.
I was told over the phone that while I could submit a specific request as a reporter, media requests are typically only granted to those interested in the DOC’s programs, and not those interested in topics such as an inmate’s case.
Part of the reasoning for that, I was told, is that scheduling a one-on-one interview between a reporter and an inmate requires a guard to be present, taking security away from other parts of the prison. If a request is approved by the DOC's central office in Pierre, I still wouldn't be allowed to bring any kind of recorder or a notebook, though I'd be given paper and a pencil to use once inside.
The DOC’s news media policy states that the department “will deal with people and organizations legitimately interested in the DOC, its institutions and agencies in a manner that maintains and enhances integrity and credibility.” Between the conversation I had and that policy, it seemed clear I would only be allowed to visit as a reporter if I were writing a story favorable to the department, as there's apparently only a safety hazard posed when the DOC isn't getting to determine its political spin.
I had to decide whether I wanted to pursue the more likely to be approved route of trying to meet with Ramos during regular visitation hours, or if I wanted to take my chances with a media request in the hopes of being allowed to use writing utensils. I went with the former.
For the most part, the rules the DOC has in place for visitation approval seem reasonable — I’m sure many people are able to visit their incarcerated family members or friends without issue. And once Ramos added me to his phone list, I was able to talk to him when he called me from the prison. But calls from the prison are either paid for by the prisoner with a debit account or collect by the person receiving a call, putting a small monetary obstacle between prisoners and the press.
I've also been able to write letters to prisoners without needing any kind of prior approval, though snail mail is not a particularly efficient or personal way to conduct an interview. And there are rules even with that. Correspondence sent to the prison has to be on plain or lined white paper, written in non-metallic ink or graphite pencil and mailed in a plain white envelope.
I've seen countless documentaries in which camera crews talk to people while they're incarcerated. Their stories are worth sharing, and they're proof that elsewhere in the country, prisons are letting journalists in. With press access to South Dakota's prisons restricted the way it is, there's a good chance any insight a prisoner has here will stay locked up with them.