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Judge rules MSNBC film crews can stay in Sedgwick County Jail, for now

Judge William Woolley on Wednesday ruled that MSNBC’s “Lockup” crews could keep filming in the Sedgwick County Jail.
Judge William Woolley on Wednesday ruled that MSNBC’s “Lockup” crews could keep filming in the Sedgwick County Jail. The Wichita Eagle

A judge ruled on Wednesday that film crews with MSNBC’s “Lockup” can keep filming in the Sedgwick County Jail, at least for now.

Judge William Woolley denied a motion the public defender’s office submitted in late September to prohibit camera crews from filming in the jail.

Woolley ruled that he could not grant the defenders’ motion to close the jail to film crews because the type of order the defenders sought is only possible in a civil case. The defenders had filed the motion for injunctive relief under a criminal case, said Mark Rudy, chief public defender.

“That’s all we can do as public defenders – we don’t have the authority to file any sort of civil action under the criminal case numbers,” Rudy said.

A crew with the MSNBC television show “Lockup” has been filming in the jail since Sept. 8 and plans to stay until Oct. 28. It also plans to return for a week in December to film follow-up material.

“Lockup,” which airs on weekends, is a documentary show that profiles life in prison by following inmates’ stories, as well as those of prison staff and general criminal justice.

The public defenders’ motion hinged on the assertion that having film crews in the jail could be a violation of inmates’ civil rights, which include Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights.

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The motion named three current inmates as defendants, including a man who is being charged with capital murder in the deaths of his identical twin brother and sister-in-law.

The Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office operates the jail and entered into a contract with 44 Blue Productions in early August allowing them to produce “Lockup” in the jail.

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Sheriff Jeff Easter has maintained that inmates have to sign releases allowing crews to film and interview them. He has also said the show will provide positive coverage for the jail and serve as a recruitment tool.

Rudy’s office was not aware of the contract until after crews had already begun filming, he said. Most of those waivers were signed before the defenders were aware, he said.

According to Rudy, 44 Blue provided 117 total waivers for people who had agreed to be filmed. Of those 117, 64 have since signed a recision, asking not to be filmed anymore, Woolley said in court.

44 Blue considers the releases “to be irrevocable,” Woolley said, but it will honor the recision requests and not film those inmates anymore. It will keep the footage it filmed of them before they signed the recision, he said.

Woolley heard approximately three hours of argument Wednesday morning regarding the various legal aspects of the case but in the end ruled based on the technicality of where the case was filed.

Rudy’s office is not giving up yet.

The public defenders are trying to get the names of the MSNBC crew members in Wichita so that they can subpoena them for footage that could then be used in court, Rudy said.

“We’ll continue to move forward,” Rudy said.

Eric Yost, the Sedgwick County counselor, said it is an issue of freedom of the press, and that to ask for blanket prior restraint is inappropriate.

“Our position was that there was never really any real basis for asking for that,” Yost said. “If they have some individual case that comes up where someone has said something incriminating and it somehow got shown on TV … that needs to be taken up after the fact, and we would address it. I think, frankly, our position was that it would be inappropriate to deny access by the press to individuals who were in jail.”

The case is next scheduled to be heard in court on the morning of Oct. 23, if the county’s attorneys do not give the names of the MSNBC crew members to subpoena before then, Rudy said.

Yost said he thinks the right decision was made Wednesday.

“It’s kind of an interesting legal issue, actually, but the judge has made his ruling,” Yost said.

Reach Matt Riedl at 316-268-6660 or mriedl@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RiedlMatt.

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