Lights, camera, action! And then some
Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series of articles that look at the various jobs within CDCR and the dedicated people who do them. CDCR employees work at some of the toughest jobs in state service. If you have a job you would like profiled in this series, send your idea to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Being a Public Information Officer (PIO) at a California state prison is unlike any other job within a correctional facility. In a crisis, the PIO is the face and voice of the institution, with cameras rolling and the tape recorders on, everything you say can and probably will be quoted.
During non-crisis moments the PIO is busy responding to Public Records Act requests, filming projects at the institution, writing articles about the prison’s goings-on for the InsideCDCR newsletter, responding to the dozens of media requests that CDCR receives on any given day, and at some institutions, performing other assignments as the Warden’s assistant.
At Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI), PIO Lt. George Paul has handled a wide range of both crisis and non-crisis communication.
In 2012, Lt. Paul helped organize one of CDCR’s biggest events of the year, the announcement of the deactivation of the final non-traditional beds in California prisons.
The event was a huge success and an important milestone in CDCR history, but it wasn’t without long hours and lots of preparation. To prepare, Lt. Paul researched the history of overcrowding at DVI, ran gate clearances for the dozens of reporters who wanted to cover the story, and made sure the gymnasium, which previously housed approximately 600 inmates, was ready for the cameras and the CDCR Secretary.
The PIO also plays a vital role in the event of an inmate escape or walk away. Last summer, an inmate at DVI walked away from the institution’s Minimum Support Facility. After being notified by the Watch Commander, Lt. Paul rushed to the institution at 3 a.m. to write a press release notifying local media.
He was able to get the information on the 5 a.m. news, which helped lead to the apprehension of the walk-away less than three hours later.
“This job is completely different than anything I’ve done before,” Lt. Paul said. “I love the community involvement and the ability to get positive news out there for our institution. The deadlines can be brutal, but it’s a good challenge.”
The job of the PIO can get even more hectic when the institution is one of the most iconic in the history of correctional facilities.
Lt. Sam Robinson, PIO at San Quentin for five years, runs at least two tours of the institution each week for college classes, law enforcement groups, documentary filmmakers, and public figures who want to take a look inside California’s first prison. He also spends hours responding to media inquiries about inmates on death row, a task unique to San Quentin in respect to male inmates.
While it may not happen often in California, an execution can consume San Quentin’s PIO full time. In late 2010, Lt. Robinson prepared for the anticipated execution of Albert Greenwood Brown.
Once the date was set, Lt. Robinson began preparing a press release containing information such as where the condemned inmate was from, where and when the inmate committed the crime.
After the press release was sent out, Lt. Robinson responded to dozens of reporters’ questions and requests to interview the inmate, visit the institution, and obtain stock film footage of the prison and the execution chambers.
The execution was ultimately halted by a California Supreme Court decision, but that didn’t change the amount of work done by Lt. Robinson in anticipation of the newsworthy event.
“It’s certainly the most challenging job in my life,” Lt. Robinson said, “but it’s an honor that I get to represent a flagship of CDCR.”