Detention

Issues ››› Detention
  • How New York journalists overcame barriers to prison access and opened the world’s eyes to the horrors of Rikers

    Blog ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN

    The media’s access to prisons is replete with roadblocks, which vary from state to state and can be as extreme as blanket denials to journalists. U.S. courts have found that journalists have no more right to access prisons than the general public does, and much of their reporting requires navigating complicated relationships with prison officials. Despite these challenges, dogged reporting from New York journalists covering the Rikers Island jail complex made it impossible for the public and officials to ignore injustices in the prison, which Mayor Bill de Blasio promised in March to shut down.

    Journalists face numerous barriers to prison access, which varies from state to state

    New York journalists' reporting on Rikers exemplified how to overcome many challenges to access

    Reporting on prisons is in the public interest


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Journalists face numerous barriers to prison access, which varies from state to state

    One of the first complexities journalists face in their reporting on prisons is different access policies across states. The Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ) developed a state-by-state media access policy resource after finding that several states “offer few guidelines for granting or denying media requests, simply leaving it up to ‘the discretion’ of whoever is in charge.” The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) even suggests reporters “try personally appealing to the head of the department” when they are unable to navigate the complex and often arbitrary policies. SPJ’s Jessica Pupovac interviewed a Wall Street Journal criminal justice reporter who compared prisons to “a fiefdom” with a “feudal system” in which “the warden is at the top.”

    Pupovac’s toolbox on prison reporting outlined other discrepancies between states. For example, some states permit face-to-face interviews with inmates “but reserve the right to terminate such conversations at any time,” while others may reject nearly all requests. An Alabama Department of Corrections spokesperson even admitted to Pupovac in 2012 that he does not “remember any times” the department has “granted access in the last year and a half.” Other prisons require that “any sources from within the prisons” be “hand-selected by staff.” According to “peer-to-peer educational platform” GenFKD, state-by-state access policies “appear to be arbitrary considering they can be based on previous legislation, administrative regulation, individual cases or a combination thereof,” and that there are only a handful of places with “due process for media to complain if they are denied” access.

    The law, however, generally does not guarantee any sort of journalist access to prisons, though journalists have successfully sued for that access. In a 2013 Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) cover story, Beth Schwartzapfel wrote, “The courts have repeatedly held that journalists do not have any rights of access greater than that of the general public. Of course, they have no fewer rights of access, either.” One Chicago journalist threatened a lawsuit “hom[ing] in on that right to equal access,” as prison officials had granted access to school and church groups, along with the prison watchdog group John Howard Association prior to then-Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn issuing “blanket denials to journalists seeking access to the state’s prisons.” Illinois’ Department of Corrections eventually granted access, and one of the reporter’s lawyers reasoned that it was because the department “knew that to give access to John Howard and not the media raised a significant equal protection claim under the Fourteenth Amendment.”

    But the challenges do not end even when a journalist is granted access. Journalists must “navigate a complicated relationship with correctional administrators whose goals and needs are often at odds with their own,” and, as Pupovac told CJR, “Openness, and transparency are ‘the exception to the rule.’” GenFKD noted that reporters also often “take statements from officials as truth without investigating further,” and “prisoners and guards alike will be dishonest and mislead regularly.”

    Former Los Angeles Times corrections reporter Jenifer Warren told CPJ that when journalists can’t get access through prison officials, they should follow “the paper trail,” noting that “prisons are functions of state governments, and state governments keep all sorts of records.” Warren also noted that though the media may not have access to current inmates, reporters can “interview former inmates,” “talk to people who just got out, people on probation and parole, and their friends and family.” And according to GenFKD, “Though corrections officials can make it hard to talk to inmates, they can’t make it impossible. Inmates are allowed to write letters, and most have access to phone calls if reporters are willing to pay hefty fees.”

    New York journalists’ reporting on Rikers exemplified how to overcome many challenges to access

    Many of these tactics were effectively employed by New York journalists reporting on the Rikers Island jail complex, which Mayor de Blasio has vowed to close, potentially within the next 10 years.

    New York magazine writer Jennifer Gonnerman’s long-form feature about Kalief Browder, who was incarcerated at Rikers, was a Pulitzer award finalist. Browder spent three years awaiting trial for allegedly stealing a backpack when he was 16, nearly two of which were in solitary confinement. He was pressured to plead guilty as his trial was repeatedly delayed, and he was eventually released without a trial because his accuser left the country and the prosecutor was therefore “unable to meet our burden of proof at trial.” Browder took his own life in 2015 after having attempted to do so “several times” during his time in Rikers. Gonnerman’s work brought national attention to Browder’s case, with former President Barack Obama citing his case in a Washington Post op-ed he wrote in 2016, and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy specifically citing Gonnerman’s reporting in a Supreme Court opinion. According to The New York Times, she was also credited with increasing public attention “on the plight of younger teenagers at Rikers” that led to the eventual plan to move 16- and 17-year-olds from Rikers “to a dedicated jail for youths in the Bronx.”

    In her reporting, Gonnerman interviewed Browder, who had already been released, as well as his lawyers and family. She also relied heavily on court filings, transcripts, and a report by U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara. These reports were instrumental in corroborating Browder’s story, such as when he recounted officers beating him and telling him that he would be sent to solitary if he went to the medical clinic rather than back to bed. The group of guards had lined Browder and other inmates “up against a wall, trying to figure out who had been responsible for an earlier fight,” and Browder recounted that though “he had nothing to do with the fight,” the guards beat him and the other inmates. Gonnerman reported that “the Department of Correction refused to respond to these allegations, or to answer any questions about Browder’s stay on Rikers.” But she was able to substantiate his story by noting that Bharara’s report “recounts many instances in which officers pressured inmates not to report beatings.”

    The New York Times’ Michael Winerip and Michael Schwirtz have also covered Rikers extensively. Their 2014 reporting -- in conjunction with court reporter Benjamin Weiser -- that the city had omitted “hundreds of inmate fights … from departmental statistics” was referenced by Bharara when he warned that his office, as the Times reported, “stood ready to file a civil rights lawsuit against” New York City over conditions at Rikers. The Times obtained a confidential report that showed that the data was incorrect in those statistics and that the warden and deputy warden “had ‘abdicated all responsibility’ in reporting the statistics and that both should be demoted.” Bharara’s office eventually joined an existing class-action lawsuit against the city for brutality at the complex. Reflecting on their “high-impact journalism,” Winerip and Schwirtz wrote that it was “remarkable” that they were able “to see the results of our reporting almost immediately.”

    In an earlier landmark report on rampant brutality at Rikers, Winerip and Schwirtz also noted that a “dearth of whistle-blowers, coupled with the reluctance of the city’s Department of Correction to acknowledge the problem and the fact that guards are rarely punished, has kept the full extent of the violence” at the prison “hidden from public view.” Nevertheless, they uncovered “details on scores of assaults” through both interviews and by “reviewing hundreds of pages of legal, investigative and jail records”:

    The Times uncovered details on scores of assaults through interviews with current and former inmates, correction officers and mental health clinicians at the jail, and by reviewing hundreds of pages of legal, investigative and jail records. Among the documents obtained by The Times was a secret internal study completed this year by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which handles medical care at Rikers, on violence by officers. The report helps lay bare the culture of brutality on the island and makes clear that it is inmates with mental illnesses who absorb the overwhelming brunt of the violence.

    The study, which the health department refused to release under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, found that over an 11-month period last year, 129 inmates suffered “serious injuries” — ones beyond the capacity of doctors at the jail’s clinics to treat — in altercations with correction department staff members.

    Rather than simply report on the secret study, which “included no names and had little by way of details about specific cases,” Times reporters obtained “specific information on all 129 cases and used it to take an in-depth look at 24 of the most serious incidents.” In addition to many anonymous interviews with “inmates, correction officers and mental health clinicians at the jail,” Winerip and Schwirtz interviewed officials like Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte and the president of the correction officers’ union, Norman Seabrook. While reflecting on their reporting, they noted that “once we started publishing articles, insiders saw we were serious and came forward to help. Many of them could have lost their jobs if their names were published, but they were able to point us to documents that had been covered up, and to people who were in a position to speak honestly and openly.”

    Winerip and Schwirtz’s reporting also demonstrated the need to not take officials’ words or reports at face value. Schwirtz talked about their reporting in another article, writing that “inmates can be, or be seen as, unreliable, and the correctional bureaucracies are often not forthcoming,” so he and Winerip had “to be creative.” They got help from prisoners’ “wives and girlfriends,” who passed information from their partners to the reporters, to report on brutal interrogations. They also used letters inmates wrote to the Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, and the group’s lawyers then put the inmates in contact with the Times. Schwirtz and Winerip also spoke to inmates on the phone and were able to visit four of them. The State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision did not provide the “names of correction officers” with whom the reporters could speak and issued “only a short statement suggesting that allegations of abuse were under investigation.” 

    Reporting on prisons is in the public interest

    Reporting on prisons and incarceration is a matter of intense public interest and can expose real injustice, waste, and corruption. SPJ’s Pupovac noted that “what happens behind prison walls affects us all.” Taxpayers must pay for “an annual budget of more than $74 billion” to run U.S. prisons, and incarcerated people eventually re-enter their communities. Yet in CJR, Schwartzapfel noted that “compared to other areas that siphon significant public resources, such as healthcare, prisons get vanishingly little media attention.” Schwartzapfel also noted that “more than 600,000” incarcerated people “eventually go home” each year, and their experience in our prisons “has profound consequences for the society they return to”:

    [I]t is hard to overstate the importance of covering prisons. For starters: 95 percent of prisoners—more than 600,000 people each year—eventually go home. What happened while they were inside—whether they received job training, adequate healthcare, or learned positive life skills, or whether they were embittered, recruited into a gang, or made connections in the criminal underworld—has profound consequences for the society they return to. And the ripples extend far beyond the prisoners themselves: Almost two million children have a parent in prison—to say nothing of inmates’ parents, spouses, and siblings. Half a million correctional officers work behind the walls.

    There are entire organizations dedicated to investigating incarceration in America. The Marshall Project, a Pulitzer-winning nonprofit news organization, uses “award-winning journalism, partnerships with other news outlets and public forums … to educate and enlarge the audience of people who care about the state of criminal justice,” as well as to “create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system.” Organizations like the Marshall Project and reporting by journalists, such as those investigating Rikers, overcame barriers to prison access and shined a light on unacceptable conditions, helping spur positive change.

  • Here Are The Big Players In The Inevitable Smear Campaign Against Judge Merrick Garland

    ››› ››› PAM VOGEL

    As President Obama reportedly prepares to announce Judge Merrick Garland to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court, media should be prepared to hear from several right-wing groups dedicated to opposing the nominee, no matter who it is. These advocacy groups and right-wing media outlets have a history of pushing misleading information and alarmist rhetoric to launch smear campaigns against Obama's highly qualified Supreme Court nominees, using tactics including, but not limited to, spreading offensive rumors about a nominee's personal life, deploying bogus legal arguments or conspiracy theories, and launching wild distortions of every aspect of a nominee's legal career.

  • Fox News Fooled By College Freshman Blogger In Attack On 9/11 Literature Course

    Blog ››› ››› PAM VOGEL

    Fox News highlighted a blog post by a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) freshman to attack an English course on the "literature of 9/11" for being one sided in favor of so-called "terrorists," despite evidence that the course includes diverse perspectives on the attacks and the War on Terror that followed.

    On the August 31 editions of Fox & Friends and Outnumbered, Fox hosts criticized a course offering at the University of North Carolina, entitled "The Literature of 9/11." The segments drew from an August 28 post at the conservative blog The College Fix, written by a UNC freshman, that was also featured on FoxNews.com. Fox & Friends co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck claimed that the course did not represent the views of victims of the 9/11 attacks or their families, then briefly interviewed a man who lost his cousin in the attacks:

    ELIZABETH HASSELBECK: Students at one of the top universities in the country will learn about the September 11th attacks through the eyes of the terrorists, instead of the victims. A UNC-Chapel Hill's freshman seminar class, "Literature of 9/11," sympathizes with the terrorists who sparked the national tragedy, presenting America as imperialistic. Some of the required reading includes poetry by Guantanamo Bay detainees, but nothing at all from the perspective of September 11th victims or their families.

    Outnumbered co-host Lisa "Kennedy" Montgomery introduced a segment on the class by citing The College Fix's claims that "None of the readings assigned in the freshman seminar present the Sept. 11 attacks from the perspective of those who died or from American families who lost loved ones." The co-hosts then focused their discussion on the supposed "one-sided" perspective of the course, and questioned whether the class should be cancelled. Kennedy went on to read her own comic take on what a poem written by a Guantanamo detainee might sound like, and stated that "most of this writing would make great lining for the bottom of my parrot's cage":

    KENNEDY: I want to point out a little bit of the syllabus. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a little bit of literature told from the perspective of a Pakistani-American who finds America to be greedy and imperialist.

    [...]

    SANDRA SMITH: It appears from the course's online description, of which you read some of it, it says "We will explore a diverse array of themes related to the 9/11 attacks and the War on Terror." A diverse array of themes. But, you-- going back, none of the readings assigned in the freshman seminar present the perspective of those who died, or the families who lost loved ones. How is that a diverse array of theme? There's no diversity in this course.

    KENNEDY: It's not diverse at all. And I think we should offer a thousand dollars to the first student who takes this class from Professor Neel Ahuja and actually disagrees with him, and we'll see what kind of a grade they get. Because I guarantee you--

    HEATHER MACDONALD: Right, because he will shut down debate, that professor. Yeah.

    KENNEDY: I guarantee the first person who presents a logical argument for why much of this writing would make great lining for the bottom of my parrot's cage -- I don't have a parrot, but if I did I would probably line the bottom with a lot of this literature -- and, you know, present a more well-rounded opinion of what actually happened.

    The course, titled "ENGL 072: Literature of 9/11," is one of 82 freshman year seminar courses across all departments offered at UNC for the Fall 2015 semester, as of August 31. Professor Neel Ahuja, an Associate Professor of English, Comparative Literature, and Geography, has taught the course since 2010. The original College Fix post about the course also cited a UNC student-driven rating page called Blinkness, which posts anonymous comments from supposed former students, to suggest that Ahuja had a personal agenda. Professor Ahuja's rating page received just four relatively positive comments from 2010 through August 29, 2015, but has since been swarmed with dozens of hateful messages demanding that he be fired, deported, or handed over to the terror group ISIS. According to his personal website, Ahuja was raised in Topeka, Kansas.

    In addition, the full list of assigned readings for the course does in fact contain diverse literature representing the perspectives of Arab-Americans, residents of New York City, members of the U.S. military and their families, survivors of the attacks, non-partisan terrorism researchers, artists, historians, musicians, and the international Muslim community, as well as several texts aimed to honor or memorialize victims of the attacks. Here are just a few examples the Fox hosts failed to mention:

    • A photographic series exploring public 9/11 memorials
    • graphic novel about 9/11 written by Art Spiegelman, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who witnessed the attacks at close range
    • A poem by Suheir Hammad, a Palestinian-American who writes about her brother in the U.S. military and her experience narrowly avoiding the World Trade Center on 9/11
    • A poem in memory of the staff of the Windows on the World Restaurant who died in the 9/11 attacks
    • Discussion of the famous "Falling Man" photograph capturing a 9/11 victim as he fell to his death, and the 2007 Don DeLillo novel about a 9/11 survivor inspired by it
    • Excerpts from the non-partisan 9/11 Commission Report and the 2002 Justice Department "Bybee" memo authorizing torture against terror detainees
    • Historical writings on the evolution of terrorism
    • The film "Zero Dark Thirty," which depicts the mission that captured and killed Osama bin Laden

    The course does include a collection of poems written by detainees at Guantanamo Bay, but all of the selections were cleared for release by the United States military during the Bush administration. One of the poets was detained at 14 and held for seven years without charge before his release. Another poet, the only journalist ever held in Guantanamo, was also released without charge after seven years in captivity.

  • Right-Wing Media Ignore Fact That Civilian Courts Are Better Than Military Commissions At Prosecuting Terrorists

    ››› ››› MICHELLE LEUNG

    Right-wing media are criticizing the Obama administration for bringing Ahmed Abu Khattala, the alleged leader of the Benghazi attacks, to trial in a U.S. criminal court. But federal civilian courts have proven significantly more successful at convicting terrorists than military commissions, give terrorists tougher sentences, deprive terror suspects of the "honor" of being considered enemy combatants, and do not prevent the gathering of intelligence.

  • Fox Attacks Medicaid Provision That Keeps Inmates From Returning To Prison

    ››› ››› JUSTIN BERRIER

    Fox News attacked a provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that allows certain inmates to be enrolled in Medicaid as "ridiculous and unfair to every taxpayer." But according to health care and correctional experts, increasing access to health services reduces both the costs associated with incarceration and decreases inmates' chances of being incarcerated again.

  • Fox News' Ignorance Of Immigration Law Plays Into Slanted Segment About Detainee Releases

    Blog ››› ››› SOLANGE UWIMANA

    Fox News used the supervised release of immigrants to fearmonger about public safety, ignoring the fact that the vast majority of released immigrants have no criminal conviction or that for those with aggravated felony convictions under immigration law can mean crimes that are neither aggravated nor considered a felony.

    Miami Herald article highlighting the release of immigrant detainees reported that 225 immigrants were released in the Miami deportation unit that includes Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands but remained under supervision.

    Discussing the story on Fox News' Your World, host Neil Cavuto argued that the fact that some of the immigrants were considered "aggravated felons" contradicted the government's claim that no one released was dangerous. Conservative pundit Katie Pavlich of Townhall.com stated that the decision "shows a gross disregard for public safety," while falsely claiming that a third of the immigrants released had aggravated felony convictions.

    In fact, as the Miami Herald reported, only two immigrants released in the Miami deportation unit had such convictions -- and the nature of their crimes was not divulged. Moreover, immigrants who have been convicted of such crimes are automatically subject to deportation, without a court hearing, and face the harshest penalties under immigration law -- which immigration experts argue are more severe than even criminal convictions.

    As immigration expert David Leopold, General Council of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, explained to Media Matters, an aggravated felony under immigration law can include more than violent offenses like murder and sexual assault:

    Determining whether a crime is an aggravated felony under the immigration law requires a confusing analysis of state and federal statutes and precedent court decisions. Some crimes, such as theft or assault, are considered aggravated felonies based of the length of the jail sentence imposed by a federal or state court -- even if the entire sentence is suspended.

    Other crimes, such those involving fraud and deceit, are considered aggravated felonies if the amount of loss to the victim exceeds $10,000, whether or not the money has been paid back. A state controlled substance offense is considered an aggravated felony if it would be a felony under the federal law. States are sovereign political entities with their own set of civil and criminal laws.