Though The New York Times lacks a beat reporter and covers the issue of mass incarceration sporadically at best, those three pieces by Tierney in early 2013 addressed two key issues.
One was about how prison, a routine event for poor African-American men and their families, serves as a “poverty trap” that puts them at an enduring economic disadvantage.
Another examined the extraordinary prevalence of life sentences, the ultimate example of oversentencing.
There were, however, no follow-up stories.
Some of the best stories about prisons are easily reproducible. Kevin Johnson and H. Darr Beiser of the Town Talk in central Louisiana recently wrote about how the “national epidemic” of aging prisoners raises fiscal, legal, social and political challenges in their state.
Some stories are unique. Liliana Segura, an editor at The Nation who also writes about prisons and harsh sentencing, recently published a moving story about a former counselor at a Pennsylvania prison visiting Sharon Wiggins. The two met when Wiggins was 17, and had just been sentenced to life without parole for participating in a fatal bank robbery. Wiggins is now 60, and still there.
Cindy Chang, now at the Los Angeles Times, spent about a year examining how Louisiana built the world’s prison capital, for The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune. Her conclusion: “The hidden engine behind the state’s well-oiled prison machine is cold, hard cash.”
And Rob Wildeboer, a criminal and legal affairs reporter for Chicago’s WBEZ radio, had to threaten to sue the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) before being allowed to visit the Vienna Correctional Center in southern Illinois. Once inside, he was struck by the poignant visuals: “Dozens and dozens of men sitting idly; lined up on rows and rows of bunks. I simply can’t describe it. Words don’t do it justice.”
But words would have to suffice. “I’d love to take you inside those rooms so you could see them yourself,” Wildeboer wrote, “but IDOC has so far refused to allow cameras or recording equipment inside the minimum-security facility—citing simply safety and security concerns.”