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An educator here at Pelican Bay State Prison once asked, “Does the media portray inmates in a fair, accurate light?” My personal assessment is that the answer is purely subjective. 

If the media releases a video — for instance, from the prison’s community relations officer — and it’s showing inmates in an exercise yard rioting over internal politics and conflicts among races, this cannot be viewed as being biased. The inmates who participated are accountable.

In another instance, journalist Lisa Ling once did a special on California State Prison, Sacramento when she was a special correspondent for the Oprah Winfrey Show. 

During her visit, her camera crew captured a belligerent inmate screaming — inebriated from homemade wine, according to an officer in the video — while he stood in a one-man holding cage. Ling reported this incident, among others, then showed the footage and narrated its content to Oprah and the audience with the intention to inform. I perceived nothing malicious in her account. 

But if an administrator, community resource manager, community information officer or other prison employee had purposely suppressed facts about the inmate during an interview with the media, then this could be taken as bias and manipulation. 

Given these points, I believe no one should depend solely on the media for all their information on a given topic, or at least they shouldn’t rely on just one source. 

Furthermore, one must remember that not everyone in prison is guilty of the crimes for which they were convicted. Judge Alex Kozinski, who represented the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, estimated in a 2017 “60 Minutes” interview that some 2.2 million people are incarcerated in America. 

Even if only 1% were incarcerated after a miscarriage of justice, he said, this would mean 20,000 inmates were wrongly convicted. (He retired from the court later that year after being accused of sexual misconduct, according to The New York Times.)

So how can we make sure something is true? 

We must make sure it is in accordance with facts and realities. One’s perception is an intuitive recognition of truth — but we must remember that is subjective in itself. 

In the words of the late Napoleon Hill, “Those who are truly enlightened greatly understand that no one has enough information about an individual to render judgment accurately.” Now that’s the truth. 

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Bryant Filer

Bryant Filer is a writer incarcerated in California.