Interviewing prison inmates: Who do I contact for this? (Advice on shooting a doc?) at DVinfo.net

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Old July 5th, 2005, 12:09 AM   #1
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Interviewing prison inmates: Who do I contact for this? (Advice on shooting a doc?)

I've been a lurker here for a little while now, and I've already learned quite a bit from the various posts, so thanks a lot for just having this board in the first place.

Anyway, me and my cousin are about to begin production on a documentary film about young people in our area who were involved in fatal auto accidents and the effect it had on their friends, family, and even on the community as a whole. We already have quite a few people on board, signed on, to go on camera to talk about everything with us. You know, like their parents, friends, etc...

For another part of the project, we were thinking of trying to find people who actually went to prison for causing an accident that took the life of a young person, have it been because of drinking or whatever. How exactly would we go about trying to get an interview with someone in prison? Do we just call up a prison and feel out whoever answers the phone? Is there a specific person that we should ask for?

We don't have a specific person to ask about interviewing yet either. Do you suppose they could help guide us to someone, or should we research this on our own and then go in with that specific information already?

We just thought this would give a more rounded out view for our project, so hopefully we can work something out.

Any other advice you can give us on this documentary would be great, we're all ears at this point. Thanks a lot guys!
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Old July 5th, 2005, 06:08 AM   #2
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The place to start would be with your state's department of corrections or prisons or whatever it may be called to find out if there is a system-wide policy about granting access to inmates. The department prob. has a Web site with information about who handles press contacts that might be the best first point of contact. I imagine that wardens at individual institutions will also have some say in how such policy is implemented "on-the-ground".
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Old July 5th, 2005, 09:43 AM   #3
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I would be inclined to start with a local warden. After you explain briefly (briefly) (summarized in one sentence or less) what you want to do, find out if you can meet him/her at the prison or buy lunch off-site to discuss it in more detail. Don't try to sell it or get permission on the phone. And certainly not by email.

If you go through DOC, you will more likely get trapped by gatekeepers and bureaucrats whose job it is to say no to every question.
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Old July 5th, 2005, 10:02 AM   #4
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The other side of the coin is that it is sometimes very difficult to get local on-site officials to comply with established state policies because they just want to make their lives easier even if they are supposed to comply. This happens all the time here in PA with our open records law. Local officials sometimes just make up rules about what records are public with no reason or real authority to do so. Sometimes they just don't know what the rules are. The state-level "bureaucrats", in my expereience, are often more cooperative and professional than local officials although this varies widely with the locality.

Even if you start with a local warden you should know what the actual state rules are (if any) so you can avoid a run-around. If you can signal that you know the law and regs the attitude of local officals can be quite different than if they think you do not have a clue.

Of course it can work the other way. The local official may bend state policy in ways that help you, but that can land you and him in hot water later on, so again forewarned is forearmed.
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Old July 5th, 2005, 10:24 AM   #5
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Peter, good points. My theory is that if the local warden does not want to participate, it is unlikely that anyone will overrule him. Even if they do, it won't matter much because he controls that inmates life and can make your interview flop with a whisper. And if he does want to participate, he will know how to cut thru the rules and regs.

I always like to start with the key person. Sometimes the key person is the assistant to the big cheese (my favorite place of all). Even if they send you somewhere else, it can still work to your advantage to be "referred" by them. It seems to work for me more often than not.
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Old July 5th, 2005, 10:45 AM   #6
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Another tact might be to scan the newspapers. Find the names of people involved and then contact them either through family, writing them directly, or through their lawyers. Newspapers will lead you to court documents and they will also provide you with thumbnails of the actual incidents so that you can narrow down your list of subjects.
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