Television news corres-pondent Spencer Michels recent trip to San Quentin prison was a return to places where he has gathered news in turbulent times past, and has come once again on a new mission to gather information for his latest assignment.
His assignment is to investigate three very complex issues such as the impending drastic cuts in California’s prison programs, the potential early release of thousands of the state’s inmates to the streets and the impact of federal medical Receiver Clark Kelso’s on-going spending plan in California’s prisons. Mix in three enlightening interviews with the likes of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Secretary Matt Cate, federal Receiver Kelso and state Attorney General and would-be-governor-again Jerry Brown. Then carefully weave together highlights of his interviews with these very volatile topics in order to produce five or six minutes of hard-hitting and informative, fact-based TV reporting intended to capture the attention of a nationwide audience.
That is the challenge facing Michels following his recent trip through S.Q. on Wednesday, Aug. 12, in search of a story for his employer, Jim Lehrer of “The News Hour With Jim Lehrer.” The SQ News was invited to tag along with Michels and his cameraman as they made their trek around the aging prison by the bay.
SEARCH FOR NEWS
Following Michels’ search for the news on what was a very pleasant afternoon, we were promised a few moments with him in order that we might record for our readers Michels’ perspectives on these important issues which are beginning to reshape the lives of every inmate behind the walls of California’s 33 prisons.
But first we watched as Michels engaged inmate Ernest Morgan in a prearranged interview in the Garden Chapel area. What, Michels asked of Morgan, a San Francisco native currently serving a 15-years-to-life term, does the potential loss of most or all of the educational and vocational programming offered at the prison mean to SQ’s inmate population?
Morgan, with the sharp perspective of a man who has spent the past 22 years of his life behind bars, shared some profound insights of an inmate population that would find itself severely handicapped in its critical efforts at rehabilitation. Michels listened attentively, voicing his surprise when Morgan noted, for instance, that Lifers have a recidivism rate of less than 1.0 percent.
Following the Morgan interview, Michels sat for a few moments to answer our own questions about his interviews with Cate, Kelso and Brown.
“It is absurd,” said Michels, “this level of overcrowding in California’s prisons. And it is important to note that although Cate seemed to articulate some very good ideas for change, I have interviewed a few other CDCR heads in the past that also had some very great plans for change. But for whatever the reasons, change just hasn’t come.”
Regarding Receiver Kelso, Michels said, “I think the attention the receiver has put on this issue is astounding.” Still, Michels pointed out from his many years of experience in the news business, the real problem is with a public which seems to have very little empathy with a person who has been convicted of breaking society’s rules and is then placed out of sight behind bars to receive their punishment.
As for Jerry Brown, Michels expressed great admiration for a man of such advanced years who has survived for so long in politics. “But still,” he pointed out, “he is still a politician. And in this state, he’s not going to stand up and say that he is in favor of releasing inmates. So it’s impossible to know where he really stands.”
LIVES IN MARIN
Michels, a Princeton-educated San Francisco native who resides in Marin with his wife, acknowledges the mountain of work before him in preparing his segment for airing on a future edition of “The News Hour With Jim Lehrer.”
“A lot of film will wind up on the floor in order to get what I need for my segment,” said Michels with a smile. The difficult choices made in the editing process will play a large role in determining the eventual face of Michels’ report when it airs.
Michels has 48 combined years in print and electronic media, taking his first job in 1961 as a reporter for the Palo Alto Times, and he remembers well coming to S.Q. in 1972 to cover the aborted escape and shooting of Black activist and author George Jackson.
He has held his position in the San Fransisco office of “The News Hour” since 1991 and has produced hundreds of five- to ten-minute segments for the show on issues including politics, health, science, the environment and art. He has won several Emmys for his work.