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The footage of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Kyle Rittenhouse spurred change. The disclosure of prison surveillance video could do the same.

The first staff assault I ever witnessed began when a guard berated a man outside his cell. 

After the guard was finished, he ordered the gentleman to cell-in, or get in his cell. The guard shoved him as he was entering his cell, prompting the gentleman to come out and chase the guard down. Had there been video footage of this staff assault, the public would not have been so quick to judge him. 

Over the years, I have witnessed guards ordering prisoners to “stand for search cell-in” — motioning with one arm for the prisoner to get down on the floor while with the other hitting the panic button on their radio, declaring the prisoner non-compliant. The prisoner is then taken to the hole and punished for either refusing to cell-in or refusing a search. 

When I watched the video of Derek Chauvin pressing his knee on George Floyd’s neck, I was transported back to a time when one or more guards had their knees on my back, crushing my ribs into the concrete. 

“I can’t breathe,” I pleaded.

“If you can talk, you can breathe,” they responded.

For this, I was charged with various infractions that included a staff assault for kicking — though it was not specified whom I was kicking or how. Again, I am sure the video of this would tell a different story.

Looking at the killings of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, and Kyle Rittenhouse’s shooting of three men in Kenosha, Wisconsin, few would argue that these cases would have been handled differently in the courts of law and public opinion if video footage of the incidents had not been publicly available. If this is true, why should events in prisons be any different? 

All U.S. states have laws that entitle citizens — and in some cases, non-citizens — to request government records. But exactly what information must be made available and what information can be withheld varies. 

For instance, the Washington Public Records Act outlines numerous types of information that can be withheld from the public, including information collected by law enforcement agencies that, if disclosed, could prevent the agencies from performing their duties.

In a case that involved my institution, Washington State Penitentiary, the state’s court of appeals determined in 2011 that prison surveillance videos were exempt from disclosure for safety reasons. The prison argued that if it were to disclose surveillance video, prisoners could discover which cameras were not working, which ones were fake or hidden and the various blind spots in the recording area.

Nonetheless, prison surveillance video needs to be made available to the public for no other reason than that the institutions must be held accountable to the taxpayers, who fund their prison system. The public should demand that these institutions be held accountable. Absent that, the public should be skeptical. 

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.

Jeffrey McKee is a writer incarcerated in Washington.