Goldilocks Goes to Jail — Part I

    Why? Why? WHY? That’s the question I hear most often when people find out that I went to jail as a felony arrest for the sake of journalism.

    The easy answer is that I’m an investigative journalist and have focused a substantial portion of my journalistic work on prison issues. It made sense for me to explore the situation from the inside so that I could understand it better. There’s nothing like firsthand experience, after all.

    The not-so-easy answer is this: Journalists, particularly investigative journalists, do a lot of things that sound completely crazy and yet which serve the greater public good. And, yes, any statement as grandiose as that deserves an explanation. So here goes…

    Journalism is the only constitutionally protected profession in the United States. The Founders felt that a free press was essential to the survival of democracy because government was not to be trusted and someone needed to do the dirty work of keeping an eye on power. Thomas Jefferson said that if he were made to choose between a country that had a government but no free press or one with a free press and no government, he would choose the latter.

    At their best, reporters are supposed to spend their careers acting as a voice for the voiceless, shining a light into the darkness, and holding public officials and others to account for their actions. We’re supposed to be the people’s eyes and ears, working to reveal corruption and abuses of power.

    I’m one of those weird journalists who takes that notion very seriously. I’ve been an investigative reporter for 15 years… (Checking math…) OK, almost 16 years. Sheesh. During that time, I’ve done some pretty crazy things in order to get closer to understanding the truth. Not all of them have been entirely legal, and some of them have been flat-out TSTL. But none of them have been journalistically unethical.

    For example, I’ve gone behind the razor wire and passed “No Trespassing” signs to photograph violations of federal pollution laws. That’s felony trespass — if you’re caught and if the judge decides to prosecute. If not, you just might save lives.

    I once drove my car — yes, my car — into a coal mine while the dragline was operating in order to document violations of federal Indian law. That’s also a felony. But worse, it’s pretty risky, both because of the dragline and, perhaps more importantly, the armed guards. This was probably the outright craziest thing I’d ever done, and I wouldn’t have done it had there been other options.

    I’ve met whistleblowers in parking lots, had conversations with anonymous whisperers, and accepted stolen documents (perfectly legal) in order to carry out my investigations. But the thing that people seem most surprised by is the time I arranged with the county sheriff to be arrested on bogus felony charges — murder, anyone? — and locked behind bars for 24 hours. My experiences there, part of my continuing coverage of women’s prison issues, underpin my latest romantic suspense novel, Unlawful Contact.

    It’s not that I wanted to go to jail so much as I felt I should go. OK, I admit I was curious — who doesn’t want to know what that world is like? But the biggest motivation on my part was a desire to understand.

    It started when the county kept issuing reports about overcrowding at the county jail. Although there are women at the jail, the reports focused on male inmates only; women were never mentioned. There’s a reason for that. Men outnumber women in the criminal-justice system by an absolutely huge margin. (When I went in, there were almost 400 male inmates and — counting me — 24 women.)

    I called the county jail and asked whether the women were also facing overcrowded conditions. I was told that, yes, they were. And then it came to me: Stay in jail.

    Yes! Brilliant idea, right? Well…

    When I presented my grand plan to the county and to the jail captain, I received a resounding and definite, “No!”

    That seemed workable, so I rephrased the question: “What would I have to do to arrange to stay in your jail for 24 hours as an inmate — besides commit a real crime?”

    After about a month of back-and-forth negotiating, I was told that they would allow me to go into the jail provided I signed a bunch of legal documents that protected them from a lawsuit in case anything happened to me while I was behind bars.

    Their concern was obvious and understandable. There are criminals in jail who sometimes kick the crap out of other inmates, even in the women’s unit.

    “If you’re attacked, we might not be able to intervene in time to prevent you from being hurt or even killed,” the jail captain told me.

    Perhaps that should have deterred me, but it didn’t. At the time, I was actually excited.

    Yes, I was stoked. I was about to become the first journalist to stay at the jail as a journalist. It was only when I was being processed — fingerprinted, photographed and strip searched — that it finally hit me and I started to feel afraid, as my mug shot shows. But no way was I going to back out.

    And although those 24 hours in the women’s unit proved to be the scariest 24 hours of my journalistic career, they were also incredibly educational. I came away with a much greater understanding of the problems facing our judicial system — and of the life struggles facing female inmates. What I learned helped guide me through years of prison reporting, during which time I unveiled some terrible abuses, winning several state journalism awards along the way.

    In other words, going to jail might have been TSTL, but it helped me to be that voice for the voiceless. It helped me to shine that light into the darkness, in this case the average cell block. It helped me do my job.

    In my next post, I share the experience of being "booked," i.e., fingerprinted, photographed and strip searched.

    And just because I know someone is going to ask, let me explain that "Uncensored" is the name of the weekly opinion column I've written since October 1992. My mugshot was cropped and turned into a "bug" for my column for the week that I reported on my jail stay. Although the real mugshot must be somewhere, I couldn't find it. And, no, I wasn't 12. I was actually 33 in that photo. I was just scared witless!

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