Covering Corrections

San Diego County jail guards rushing at a mentally ill inmate

I began writing about incarceration and the death penalty in 2001, while a first-year reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times. The stories I worked on there later grew into a cover story for the Tucson Weekly and a short student documentary film.

In 2004, I examined prison culture for my master’s dissertation in social anthropology. In the year since, I’ve covered prison issues and the death penalty across the southwest, expanding into juvenile detention, as a John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow.

60 Dead Inmates

In 2013, Kelly Davis and I published an investigative series in San Diego CityBeat examining how San Diego County came to have the highest inmate mortality rate among California’s large jail systems. The series was honored with a first place investigative reporting award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia and the Contribution to Oversight Award from the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.

How many inmate deaths is too many?

San Diego County’s incarceration mortality rate leads California’s largest jails

Wheels of force

How San Diego County deputies killed a schizophrenic inmate and avoided a public investigation

Suicide in the cell

Inmates kill themselves at a high rate after San Diego County Sheriff’s Department refuses to revamp policies

Death’s in the details

Lapses in reporting inmate mortalities raise questions of oversight in San Diego County facilities

The unsettling settlement

Family of killed inmate hopes San Diego jail system changes how it handles mentally ill inmates

San Diego County Juvenile Hall

In California, the two groups of people that receive the highest level of privacy protection are children and law enforcement officers. Yet when the state is tasked with managing children, as is the case with juvenile detention, public oversight is crucial to ensuring safety and accountability.

In 2012, as part of juvenile justice journalism fellowship with the John Jay College and CUNY and the Tow Foundation, I investigated the extreme usage of pepper spray in San Diego County’s juvenile halls and how the agencies tasked with overseeing use-of-force have failed incarcerated youth.

In response to the report, a coalition of civil rights organizations launched an independent investigation. In July 2014, the groups filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice, asking investigators to launch a probe. The brutality they uncovered was far worse than what I had imagined.

461 pepper spray incidents documented in juvenile detention last year (San Diego CityBeat)

The Sting of Juvenile Detention (The Crime Report)

Civil rights groups blast San Diego County over pepper spray in juvenile halls (San Diego CityBeat)

Inmate Free Speech

The ability for inmates to communicate with the outside world, I believe, is a human right. In an era of electronic communication, this issue has become even more complicated.

Op-ed: What if MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” had been on Facebook? (Ars Technica/EFF)

Hundreds of South Carolina Inmates Sent to Solitary Confinement Over Facebook (EFF)

New Mexico Inmate Faces 90 Days in Solitary Confinement Over a Facebook Profile (EFF)

The Hidden Cost of JPay’s Prison Email Service (EFF) Days later, the company reversed course.

Jail administrators craft a postcards-only policy (San Diego CityBeat) In 2015, a court ruled the policy was unconstitutional. 

Dialing Out: Prison phone companies still gouging families (Santa Fe Reporter)

Crossed off and Barred (San Antonio Current)

Is No Myspace Sacred?  (San Antonio Current)

Prison Rape Elimination Act

In 2003, Congress enacted legislation to combat sexual assualt in detention facilities. While largely toothless, the law did provide the public with a number of resources for obtaining information. (San Diego CityBeat)

Raped behind bars

County misreports data about sexual violence in juvenile jails

Watchdog body failed to investigate transgender inmate complaints

Sheriff to reexamine treatment of transgender inmates

Courtesy: KWTV News 9

Courtesy: KWTV News 9

Private Prisons

Riot in North Bumblef*ck (San Diego CityBeat)

A private-prison disaster in Oklahoma reveals the dangers of California’s reliance on Corrections Corporation of America

Hutto Report (San Antonio Current)

 Under the Bush administration, entire families of asylum seekers were held in prison facilities operated by the Corrections Corporation of America.

Bar Wars (Tucson Weekly)

Death Penalty

In 2001, I covered the appeal of Philip Bocharski, a convicted killer sentenced to death despite his uniquely damaged childhood. He had been sold as a sex slave to trucker, growing up with deep emotional problems that should have, but wasn’t properly considered during sentencing. Ever since, I’ve found myself drawn to capital punishment across the southwest, including witnessing the execution of Texas inmate Johnathan Moore. (San Antonio Current)

Johnathan Moore (San Antonio Current):

Before: Victim of the Nineties

After: Injections and Ice Storms

Vincent Gutierrez (San Antonio Current)

Karl Chamberlain (Santa Fe Reporter)

 John Amador (San Antonio Current)

Michael Astorga  (Santa Fe Reporter)

Prison Life

Over the years, I’ve also written about conditions for inmates in prison, as well as the culture aspects of incarceration.

Paper to Pen 

At the San Antonio Current, I edited a special pull-out supplement designed to be mailed to Texas inmates.

What Santa’s Bringing California Inmates for Christmas

A look inside the bizarre mail-order catalogs for inmates, including Xbox consoles in private prisons.

Jailhouse nosh

For CityBeat‘s food issue, I wrote about the San Diego County jail’s mass food packaging facility and inmates’ complaints about it.

Pride in Prison (Santa Fe Reporter)

A Q&A with Mark Reyes: a Transgender Aztec Satanist in maximum security.