Monday, March 22, 2010

Things you can learn in prison

A long night at an Indiana prison riot offered a good lesson in journalism and human relations when I was on the street years ago.

This came up recently when I came across my story dictated from a telephone booth at the Indiana Reformatory at Pendleton northeast of Indianapolis.

Here's the top:

PENDLETON, Ind. - Authorities today regained control of a prison block where knife-wielding inmates rebelled in protest of conditions, injuring five guards and holding two others hostage for more than 15 hours. A third hostage was released earlier.

The last of the guards was released shortly after midnight Friday after Department of Correction officials agreed to meet some of the prisoners' demands.

"I'm OK," said one hostage, corrections officer Carl Ingalls of New Castle, as he waited early today at the Indiana Reformatory entrance for his wife.

Five guards were hospitalized with stab wounds, with one listed in very serious condition, authorities said...

Things I remember about that now:

- Somebody told me that night that the guards at any prison only have control of the place as long as the inmates let them. The inmates generally comply because they get to run the society inside, and any rebellion usually brings a very tough response. At Pendleton that night, the inmates had enough control to force administrators to negotiate. And they figured out what conference room we in the media were filing from. Soon they began calling the phone to tell us directly about their complaints. They were smart, organized and very violent.

- For a reporter on the scene there were challenges that hardly exist today. Laptops were rare so we dictated stories and updates by telephone. You did that by assembling your notes and quotes, writing yourself a lead to get started and then weaving the rest of the narrative together as you went. That's a skill that could be helpful again today when we're talking about frequent Web updates.

- We had no cell phones, so to file an update we had to use the pay phones in the lobby (after administrators disabled the conference room phones we had been using, because the inmates were calling us). There were just three pay phones. As midnight arrived and it appeared the inmates were about to release their hostages I grabbed one of the pay phones and called my office, holding the line so I we could get the update out right away. Other reporters did not like this, so I pretended to be in a heated conversation with somebody at the other end. As soon as the last hostage was released we hit the wire in time for morning newspapers that had been holding their pages.

- Don't freak out your sources. After the prison was secured again we naturally wanted to talk to some of the correctional officers who had been held hostage. No way, administrators said. They were a bit shaken up and were still being debriefed anyway. An hour later I was still on the scene, in the tradition of wire service reporters who have to stick around well after the cycle closes in case there are questions. The TV cameras had packed up and the place was clearing out when I saw a door open and a young guy in his 20s walk out. He wore the uniform of a correctional officer but his tie was askew, his hair mussed and his face pale and haggard. I sidled up to him.

"You OK?" I said.

"Yeah, I'm OK," he replied.

"You were one of the guys they were holding hostage?" I asked gently.

He nodded and told me his name, and then we both looked up. A frantic, wild-eyed man ran up to us - one of my competitors from another wire service.

"Hey! Are you one of the prison guards?" he said in a loud voice. After the very quiet start of our chat it sounded like this guy was yelling. My guard lowered his head and mumbled that he had to go meet his wife. The interview was over.

That moment with the former hostage was brief but it made the third paragraph of our national story. It was also a great lesson in human relations. My colleague hadn't meant to blow the interview: Had he been cool and just eased into the situation we could have both gotten a first-person account from inside the riot.

The gentle touch often pays off. That's a principle that's worked in a lot of situations far from the prison over the years.

- John Strauss,

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