Coverage of killing of prison guard does reporter credit

Public Editor

August 06, 2006|By PAUL MOORE | PAUL MOORE,PUBLIC EDITOR

The recent stabbing death of correctional officer David McGuinn has brought renewed attention to Maryland's prison system - where violence among inmates and toward officers, lax security and staff shortages have produced what some have called a full-fledged crisis.

Sun reporter Greg Garland's July 27 news story, "Prison violence leads to outrage," provided the kind of details that gave readers a full picture of how and why the killing at the Maryland House of Correction occurred. The article included the information that McGuinn - a "by-the-book officer" - was on an inmate "hit list." These threats were taken seriously enough that, until recently, administrators had assigned McGuinn to work outside duties, away from contact with inmates.

It also noted that McGuinn was especially vulnerable to attack by inmates with homemade knives because he was working on a tier that has some of the most dangerous and difficult inmates. (Two inmates have been charged with homicide in the July 25 killing.) Additionally, the article pointed out that the Jessup prison has been short-staffed for months, with 47 positions currently vacant.

Garland's Sunday, July 30, front-page article, "Jessup prison's lax culture problematic, workers say," offered readers further evidence of life at the jail, known by some as "The House of Corruption." Administrators acknowledged that staff members were the likely source of smuggled cell phones that inmates use to conduct criminal activity inside and outside the prison. A constant flow of illegal drugs and tobacco into the prison also has created a flourishing black market among inmates and some prison employees.

A number of readers responded to the articles. "What a true picture of things going on in the Maryland prison system," said Norman Sutton. "You've done a great job of reporting on this."

From Mike Hoosier: "I am a retired captain from the Maryland Division of Corrections. ... The administrators have created an atmosphere that is hostile and unsafe. It is not just unsafe for officers, but the inmates are not safe either. I thank you for these articles."

Former inmate Melton Williams, who was quoted in the July 30 article, said: "Greg, I want to applaud your `fair and balanced' reporting in Sunday's paper. I appreciate your willingness to include my input and insights on behalf of prisoners who are also victimized by the current policies and trends taking place within the prisons."

Developing sources to get reliable information from a tightly controlled environment like a state prison system is very difficult. Correctional officers currently employed by the state are prohibited from talking to reporters, information from inmates can be hard to verify and prison officials traditionally are uncomfortable dealing with the news media.

A reporter's ability to establish trust is essential to get information that can put incidents such as the McGuinn killing into the larger context of policies, safety, violence, and politics. Garland's work is a testament to his journalistic skills and his honest approach in dealing with sources.

A reporter at The Sun since 1998, Garland has covered the Maryland legislature and the juvenile justice system. He began covering the Maryland prison system in 2004.

A correctional officer angrily told Garland at the time that reporters did not understand what it's like to work inside a prison and that she'd get fired if she talked to Garland. "So I told the officer that I respected her need for confidentiality and that I'd do everything possible to learn and understand what's really going on inside," Garland recounted.

Over the past two years Garland has developed an extensive and diverse network of sources. The people involved - administrators, correctional officers, inmates and their advocates - seriously disagree on what's wrong with Maryland's prisons. But in a significant number of e-mails and letters to The Sun, all sides have noted the consistent quality of Garland's work.

Only a few days before McGuinn's killing, Garland received a call from an inmate at the House of Correction using an illegal cell phone to discuss conditions at the prison and the recent wave of violence. Said Garland: "I recognize that many inmates I have contact with are convicted of serious crimes, so a healthy amount of skepticism is in order. But I've learned that they can have legitimate complaints and fears about the conditions under which they are incarcerated."

Despite other instances of violence in the state's prisons, Garland believes the McGuinn case is special. "It is a watershed event that proves something must be done to change the state of Maryland's corrections," he said.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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