Pelican Bay State Prison’s Lt. Christopher Acosta has been named public information officer of the year by the California State Information Officers Council.
Lt. Christopher Acosta during a media tour of Pelican Bay State Prison in 2011. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
All government communications employees are eligible for the statewide award.
Acosta was recognized for his efforts over the past year after two hunger strikes in 2011 led by inmates housed in Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit caused an outpouring of media requests for prison tours.
“I didn’t do this by myself,” said Acosta after receiving his award last week. “We all did this together.”
His primary function as public information officer is scheduling tours for media, universities, legislators and other law enforcement agencies. He must coordinate with various prison departments to ensure a smooth visit from attaining gate passes to having inmates pulled for interviews, all while maintaining the safety of the visitors.
Acosta has spent 21 of his 23 years with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation at Pelican Bay, and was a correctional officer for 15 years.
“I spent a lot of time as a correctional officer,” said Acosta. “I always say those guys are where the rubber meets the road. They’re in the trenches.”
That’s where he learned the inner workings of the prison and gained a solid foundation of historical knowledge, he said.
“I stayed an officer for 15 years working pretty much everywhere,” said Acosta.
He spent six years with the Investigative Services Unit, which functions as a police force within the prison responding to incidents, investigating crimes and performing security audits.
“That was probably the highlight of my career,” said Acosta, adding that the prison was busy while he was with the ISU in the late 90s.
He obtained the rank of sergeant, then lieutenant. He stepped into the administrative side after now-retired Warden Greg Lewis tapped him to be the prison’s public face in 2010. A year later the hunger strikes hit and he was dealing with a media onslaught uprecedented at Pelican Bay.
“This has been a learning curve for me,” said Acosta.
He speaks for the prison when reporters call about incidents that have occurred.
He has guided reporters from the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, U.K.-based newspaper the Guardian, Rolling Stone and Mother Jones magazines, Northcoast Journal, Univision, the Triplicate and Curry Coastal Pilot.
“Now looking back, I think every person from different media departments, they walk out with a different outlook of our prison. It’s not what they thought.”
His favorite tours, however, are when students visit.
Twice a year criminal justice students from Southern Oregon University, Chico State and College of the Redwoods take a look behind the bars.
“He grew into the role and he made it his own, that always impressed me about him,” said Terry Thornton, deputy press secretary for CDCR. “He doesn’t just escort people on a tour, he really tries to educate them.”