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Backstory: Hardest-to-Reach Sources

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FILE: SEAN METCALF
  • FILE: SEAN METCALF

After 10 hours at the Statehouse, I was ready to call it a day. But, driving up Interstate 89 last spring, I saw a Pennsylvania number on my iPhone and I had to take the call. I'd been waiting months for it.

At the other end of the line was Kirk Wool, one of more than 200 Vermont inmates then imprisoned in Camp Hill, Pa. He said a guard had beaten up one of his fellow inmates. He begged me to write a story about it.

Reporters hear from inmates all the time, usually by mail. Many are hoping a journalist will dig into their case and uncover a miscarriage of justice. Some complain about prison conditions. Others send poems or raps.

Letters from Camp Hill were different. They were mostly about threats of violence by guards and poor access to medical care.

But as hot as Wool's tip was, it would have been a major violation of journalistic ethics to print his accusation without getting a lot more evidence. That would be complicated. In a prison setting, reports of wrongdoing come down to the word of a convicted criminal versus the word of a government official. Plus, officials in Vermont didn't have a lot of first-hand information about what was going on in Pennsylvania, and Camp Hill officials often refused to release records.

In short, I needed corroboration. I asked Wool to give my address to all of the inmates who saw or heard what happened, and for them to describe to me the details they personally observed. It took a few weeks of navigating the prison's cumbersome and closely monitored communication channels to get seven eyewitness accounts. Two months after Wool's call, Seven Days published the story.

The prison system is designed to isolate inmates. Before Wool could talk to me on the phone, he had to submit my name and phone number to officials to get me on his "phone list." Even after I was approved, which took weeks, officials could still monitor the conversations.

Inmate mail was no more secure. Letters got searched to prevent contraband, but that made it impossible to protect my unnamed sources from retribution. Each letter had to be addressed just so, with the specific six-character inmate number. One letter came back because the return address didn't include a proper name.

Electronic correspondence brought different challenges. Pennsylvania requires inmates to use a contractor-built web portal called ConnectNetwork. In order to exchange messages with them, I had to create an account on ConnectNetwork and pay for digital "stamps." I could subsidize inmates who couldn't afford their own — the digital equivalent of a collect call.

Despite the hurdles, inmates sent me more than 50 letters over the past year, as well as more information through ConnectNetwork and via attorneys and family members. Officials in Pennsylvania weren't happy. After I quoted inmate Jabbar Chandler's letter describing threats of violence by a guard, officials put him in solitary confinement for weeks without an explanation. Inmates confirmed it. They also said the prison blocked access to the Seven Days website.

In October, Wool and his fellow inmates were moved from Pennsylvania over concerns that Vermont state officials couldn't guarantee their safety there. The new contract, with private prison operator CoreCivic, gives Vermont more control over prison policies at the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Mississippi.

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