What I learned from reporting on the Allegheny County Jail

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Outside of the Allegheny County Jail building

Allegheny County Jail. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

This month, I wrapped up an 8-month reporting project on the Allegheny County Jail. The project, which started out as a single story about mental health at the jail during the pandemic, morphed into an 11-part rollercoaster of a series that uncovered the facility’s staffing crisis, its controversial use of the restraint chair and more.

Each day was a crash course on covering correctional facilities, which are infamously opaque. How do I build sources inside the jail? What’s the best way to ensure our journalism doesn't endanger the people I speak to? How do I balance my own mental health while reporting on such an intense beat? This project provided answers.

In hopes of demystifying jail reporting and empowering other journalists to try it, I gathered these lessons into every reporter’s favorite medium: a Twitter thread. I’ve adapted it here for you, our readers, to give you a look behind-the-scenes of what it took to report those stories.

So, here are seven things I learned from reporting on the Allegheny County Jail:

  • Avoid words like “inmate” or “prisoner.” I was guilty of this until it was brought up to me by activists and other journalists, but that language is stigmatizing and dehumanizing. “Incarcerated people” or simply “person” or “individual” are easy swaps. (The Marshall Project just published a great project about this.)
  • It’s not as hard to find sources as you might think! Over 1,000 members of our community are incarcerated at the jail every day. Facebook groups are a great place to start, as are attorneys and advocacy organizations. Many people are happy to bring more awareness to these issues.
  • Be understanding of why sources request anonymity. Speaking out can put incarcerated people in danger. Explain how their comments will be used, ask them (multiple times, if possible) if they are comfortable having their name published and allow them to change their minds. Also be intentional about what information you include about people — news stories are Googleable and can follow people for years. This initiative by The Boston Globe is a really thoughtful way of addressing this.
  • Mail is your friend. It’s often impossible to call up an incarcerated person, so if you need to get in touch with someone, write them a letter. This has been surprisingly successful in my limited experience. Also, who doesn’t love getting mail?
  • A big one: Speaking truth to power can be scary, especially for young journalists. Statements of authority should be vetted like any other source. Not doing so is bad journalism and can harm people. I had to remember that many times, including for this story.
  • Human sources are essential, but record requests can also be helpful, even if they get denied or redacted. In the course of 7 months, I filed 35 requests to Allegheny County regarding the Allegheny County Jail: 18 were granted in part or in full; 16 were denied or granted but completely redacted (as in the case of the mental health policies); one is still pending. These requests provide valuable information about the jail, such as employee complaints about understaffing and holes in medical scheduling.
  • Establish work boundaries and prioritize your mental health. I used to take calls from sources whenever they called, especially since folks at the jail have little control over their schedules. But this led to me being “on” at all hours of the day and I quickly became burned out. It’s important to remember that you are not personally responsible for changing the criminal justice system.

These reflections are just my personal takeaways, and much of what I know I’ve learned from trailblazing criminal justice journalists, activists and incarcerated people themselves.

There’s a big need for more coverage of correctional and criminal justice issues. I hope starting conversations like this can help make more journalists comfortable with tackling these issues — and keep more readers like you invested in this sort of reporting.

I’d also really like to hear your thoughts. What did I leave out or get wrong? How can reporters better cover the issues incarcerated people face? What other questions do you have? Send me an email at juliette@publicsource.org.

Juliette Rihl is a reporter for PublicSource. She also can be reached on Twitter @JulietteRihl.

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