Journalists' failures to cover people in the system

Could journalists be better when covering people tangling with justice?

This week’s dispatch coming to you from a boring (it was actually really nerdy and great) journalism conference courtesy of Poynter. We heard from Kimberly Haven and Ronald Simpson-Bey who talked about how journalists get it wrong and can get it better when reporting on criminal justice.

Ronald Simpson-Bey in a 2016 conversation about solitary confinement.

Ronald spent 27 years in Michigan on a wrongful conviction he was released from. “My co-defendants and I were arrested, we were splashed across the front of the news paper, handcuffed and chained together like we just got off the slave ship,” he said. That image followed him like a “scarlet letter”.

As a JustleadershipUSA Outreach and Alumni Engagement Director, Ronald now travels the country advocating for justice reform. JLUSA advocates for people first language and context of who people are when accused of a crime. “They are not just the one thing they have been accused of - they have stories,” Ronald said.

After spending three days without showering behind bars after he was first arrested, his co-defendants and him were brought out in front of the public. “We looked like animals, [and] the media was out there taking pictures.”

And the impact of those images - “we didn't have a chance [for a fair trial].” He felt the media coverage led the to a public decision of guilt before he was even tried.

Kimberly Haven, a coalition and policy director for Reproductive Justice Inside, gets frustrated when reporters always include her criminal history in articles about her advocacy work. As far as covering plea bargains and arrests on slow news days “If the only reason your covering a sentencing is into fill space, think again.”

“You have to make the decision what's the story and also what's the point of the story,” she said.

If you have a minute: “The Zo” uses animation to take you through a journey of how prisons attack the mind and imprison the body. It is based on a graduate paper that looked at prison letters. Watch here.

Correction: Last week, we heard from Montana man Pete Leek about his journey in the justice system, we regret leaving out what was most important to him for you all to know: He “is doing very well now,” and is out and been sober for 12 years.


  • Executed: Despite a general understanding that he did not shoot the officers, Nathaniel Woods was executed by the state of Alabama last week after serving a sentence related to the murder of three police officers. Watch more here.

  • More: One of the killed officer’s sisters plead for his execution to be stopped while two other of the sisters from the same family joined AL attorney general after the execution to remember their brother and support the execution. A particularly poignant quote from one of the police officers sisters:

    “That horrific day [when the police were shot] could have been prevented if [Woods] had any kind of compassion or respect for law enforcement.” [] Note: this article spends most of its space detailing Woods convicted crime, and follows none of the suggestions of this weeks featured advocates above. What do you think?

  • State accountability: New York will pay millions to Karl Taylor's family for his death. His sister now can afford money for a headstone. [The Marshall Project]

  • Money: An Alabama county just got local control of jail food funds for other county needs, but there are questions about safeguards against abuse. [WAAY31]

  • Dying in secret: Billy Smith’s, who we talked about a few weeks ago, mother speaks out about being shut out of information by prison officials as he lay dying from an alleged guard and inmate assault. [Injustice Watch]

  • Freed: A man in Mississippi freed from 120-year sentence after 13 years served. [WTVA]

  • Paid back: Florida senate clears compensation for former death row inmate imprisoned for 43 years. [The New York Times]

  • Lobbying: Dive into a new PR group’s push for private prisons. They are called the new Day 1 Alliance. [Truthout]

  • Study: A Feb. study found that jail deaths decreased from 2015 to 2016 by almost two percent. [Bureau of Justice Statistics]

    “On average, about half of all deaths in local jails from 2006 to 2016 were due to illnesses, such as heart disease, liver disease, and cancer.”

The Des drops into your inbox weekly with a collection of small and digestible snippets concerning the criminal justice system. It promises to be humanizing, spunky, and educational.
Our name: Des is short for Desmoterion, “place of chains”, used to describe prisons in ancient Athens. We like the idea of the chains because incarceration expands far beyond prisons to laws, policies, belief systems, and private industry.