Nevada Department of Corrections Has A Ridiculous Inmate Interview Policy

Imagine for a moment that you are accused of a murder you didn’t commit. What would you do? You might hire the best lawyer money can buy. You might gather up alibi witnesses. You might even waive your Fifth Amendment right to remain silent and testify in your own defense. But what if that didn’t work and a jury of 12 convicted you anyway?

This is the dilemma my old high school friend, Kirstin Lobato, has spent 15 years facing. She was convicted in 2002 of murder. Her first conviction was overturned and in 2006, she was convicted of manslaughter. Kirstin’s case is astonishing in that there is no physical evidence connecting her to the crime, and there’s no tangential evidence connecting her to the man who was murdered.

Ten years later, Kirstin sits in the Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center waiting for the Nevada Supreme Court to rule on her appeal. She has tried telling her story to any media outlet that would listen, but in many cases, those same outlets have been denied access to her because of the Nevada Department of Corrections’ policy on media interviews.

The NDOC will not grant inmate interviews to any outlet they consider “entertainment.” But how do they determine whether an outlet is a legitimate news agency or an entertainment agency? In an email, NDOC spokesperson Brooke Keast told me, “Every inmate in one of our facilities has a closed case and has been sentenced. Their stories are no longer in the news, so virtually all requests from media to do interviews are for entertainment purposes.” In other words, every single media outlet asking for an inmate interview will be denied because NDOC considers these stories entertainment.

Think about that for a second: an arm of the state has decided that a free press does not have a legitimate interest in inmate interviews because the press is only pursuing these stories for entertainment value. The State of Nevada has created an editorial policy, and is now applying that policy to the press.

Multiple reporters have requested interviews with Kirstin. All have been denied access. One reporter was able to conduct an interview over the phone, but that is simply not good enough. Those calls are monitored, and an inmate may be hesitant to speak freely knowing someone else is listening in. For example, imagine you are an inmate trying to expose Nevada’s corrections officers propensity for shooting inmates. You can’t call a producer. You can’t mail a letter to an editor. Reporters are not allowed to talk to you. You have no options.

Producers for 48 Hours and Dateline have told me they will not pursue wrongful conviction stories in Nevada because they cannot gain access to the inmate (they’re entertainment, despite their Peabody Awards for Excellence in Journalism). Last year, a reporter for a major print outlet was denied access to Kirstin, even though she did not attempt to bring a camera inside the prison — just a voice recorder (also entertainment). A reporter working for one of the big four networks was denied access to Kirstin because the story would be considered “entertainment.” MTV’s new series on wrongful convictions was also denied access.

This policy seems to be patently illegal. Sure, a reporter doesn’t have a right to talk to an inmate. But the state cannot dip its toes into the editorial decisions of the press. In New York Times v. United States, Justice Hugo Black wrote, “In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.” Now, we’re not talking about the Pentagon Papers, but the spirit applies nonetheless.

So Kirstin waits, as she has for 15 years, for something to change, for a DA to review her case, and for someone to listen. Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson recently started a Conviction Integrity Unit, designed to “re-examine convictions where new evidence suggesting actual innocence has surfaced, and to guard against future error by adopting and implementing prosecution best practices.” When asked whether the unit would examine Lobato’s case, Wolfson refused to answer questions and told one reporter to tell their station to stop asking him about it. So much integrity.

You can read Kirstin’s story here.