Independent reporter Beth Shelburne was notified of her removal from the Alabama Department of Corrections press distribution list on Oct. 8, 2019, on the basis that Shelburne did not work for an “accredited news organization. Shelburne alleged that it was in retaliation for her reporting and opinion pieces.
Birmingham-based Shelburne told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker in January 2022 that she has been covering prisons in the state since 2012. After leaving her position at WBRC FOX6 News in July 2019, she said she was able to have her new email address added to the ADOC press distribution list.
That August, she wrote an op-ed criticizing the department’s funeral for a K-9 officer killed in a contraband raid. After the piece was published she stopped receiving regular press releases from the department.
Following the death of an inmate in early October, Shelburne said she tried to receive confirmation and comment from the department’s communication director, Linda Mays, who told her to check the ADOC website or submit a formal records request. When AL.com, the largest digital news site in the state, published a story about the death which included the information she had requested, Shelburne asked Mays why she had responded to questions from that outlet but not to hers.
“She responded that they had revised their media policy and the public affairs office would only respond to journalists with ‘accredited’ news organizations and those would be the only reporters on their press distribution list,” Shelburne told the Tracker. “I realized that this was retaliation for the critical op-ed I had published.”
The policy Mays cited went into effect in October 2004 and describes “news media” as almost exclusively traditional and legacy media outlets — namely broadcast, radio and print outlets — and does not include any reference to freelance journalists or digital media outlets. The policy and definitions do not appear to have been revised since 2004.
Mays and the ADOC press office did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Shelburne tweeted about her removal on Oct. 9, 2019, and included a screenshot of the email from Mays, which asserted that she was a member of the public, not a journalist.
“That was the tweet that kind of went viral and the next day I received a call from Gov. [Kay] Ivey’s press secretary and she told me that somebody from the Department of Corrections would be reaching out to me and that this would be remedied,” Shelburne said. “And in fact the commissioner of prisons called me and apologized.”
Then-ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn told her that she had been removed in error and would be readded to the press list, Shelburne told the Tracker, and offered to meet with her for coffee.
In a statement emailed to reporters on Oct. 10, Dunn reasserted the department’s commitment to transparency and said they were “resolving” Shelburne’s removal for the press list, WBRC reported at the time.
“The action of removing this person does not help us reach our ultimate goal of making Alabama safer and helping to cultivate an atmosphere within the system where both the inmates and correctional officers feel safe,” Dunn said. “The Alabama Department of Corrections is committed to working with all types of media and will continue working tirelessly to remain transparent and effective for the media and the public.”
Shelburne told the Tracker that while her access was restored for a time, communications with Mays and other ADOC press officers were sluggish and their responses hostile. In emails shared with the Tracker, they criticized her reporting tips from incarcerated individuals and accused her of “misinformation” and “cherry-picking” information to further an agenda. By June 2020, both the ADOC and governor’s office had removed her from their press distribution lists and stopped responding to her requests entirely, Shelburne said.
Shelburne said she’s now considering legal avenues for restoring her access.
“It feels like nothing is going to change unless I sue,” Shelburne said. “You can’t block people’s access just because you don’t like what they’re saying because they are an opinion journalist or an op-ed writer.
“And a government agency can’t decide who is a real journalist or not.”