The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

Gary Grossman

January 12, 2014

Into the black hole

Other than this column, I try to stay out of the newspaper the way most people try to stay out of prison. This week, I wound up in both when I tried to understand the Northumberland County Prison’s visitor policy after a Daily Item reporter was shooed away.

Reporter Francis Scarcella had received a letter from inmate Miranda Barbour, accused of homicide, saying she had placed Scarcella on a visitor list despite advice from her attorney to the contrary.

Mrs. Barbour and her husband, Elytte, have been subjects of several news stories ever since they were accused of killing a Valley resident in November.

In the legal process, a person who is accused and arrested can appear in print associated with the charges five or more times before his or her version surfaces at trial.

This happens as the accused moves through arrest, arraignment, hearings, indictment and pre-trial motions.  Reporters try to communicate to the accused an interest in their account, balancing the stories and pursuing relevant unexplored information and possibilities.  

Most people in these situations and their attorneys decline.

Over the years, however, reporters from The Daily Item have conducted jailhouse interviews with prisoners — five in recent years in state facilities, Union County and Snyder County. Most of these prisoners had been arrested and accused in homicides.

Sometimes they wanted to offer a narrative that differs from the charging documents. Sometimes they wanted the newspaper and the public to know how they are being treated. One inmate wanted parents of the victim and the public to know that he was sorry for their loss.

When reporter Scarcella went to find out how visiting hours work in Northumberland County, he said he was told by the ranking officer not to bother because the jailers would not allow him to see the inmate.

Until that moment, Scarcella’s understanding was that visitation would be allowed if the inmate put a person’s name on a list of authorized visitors and Scarcella believed, based on the letter, that his name was on the list.

That expectation conformed to experiences reporters have had with prisons in Union and Snyder counties, with policies at other county prisons and with the policy for visitation at state correctional centers.

So, I went to the county prison board’s meeting on Wednesday to ask how the visitation policy worked and why there should be a difference between a reporter and anyone else an inmate puts on the list of approved visitors.

At first, the warden said the prison did not allow press to talk to prisoners because if they allowed one, they would have to allow all and that would disrupt security. Not true. If Miranda Barbour had included someone from the Shamokin News-Item on her list of visitors, we would not expect automatic access.

Then, the warden tried accusation. He said reporter Scarcella had misrepresented himself. Not likely. Scarcella is the Miley Cyrus of local newspaper reporters. Everybody in a 50-mile radius knows him. The jail is half a block from the newspaper. The two guys who shooed Scarcella off certainly knew him.

My questions were curtailed when a member of the prison board interjected that the public comment session of the county prison board meeting was not the place to discuss prison visitation policy. If policy cannot be aired at a meeting of the prison’s governing board, I wondered to myself, then where?

Reporters from local newspapers accurately covered my inquiry, thank you all very much.

The following day, we were told that Mrs. Barbour was on a non-disciplinary restricted status, meaning, apparently, that she was allowed to have a list of authorized visitors whom she was not actually permitted to see.

We have seen the list. Scarcella’s name was number three. It was crossed out the day after I attended the prison board.

Here is the deal.

Prison policies are not for reporters or jailers or lawyers or publishers. They are pieces in a system of American justice meant to uphold individual rights, which are not stripped away at the moment of accusation or arrest.

Therefore, policies should be clear, public and consistently applied, which most prisons somehow manage without drama.

Gary Grossman is the publisher of The Daily Item and The Danville News.

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