About alvarez

Journalist and founder of Outlier Media.

Is prison health public health?

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This week Outlier’s Joey Horan published, in Bridge Magazine, an investigation into the Michigan Department of Corrections’ response to COVID-19. He found MDOC is using solitary confinement-like conditions for pandemic control and cutting off family visitation, but they are not engaging in widespread testing of prison staff. These policies mean the COVID-19 outbreaks in Michigan’s prisons are among the worst in the country. Horan spoke to dozens of people incarcerated at three prisons across the state; The Thumb, Huron Valley, and Gus Harrison. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

SA: I want to start from the beginning. Tell me how you started this story.

JH: Two mothers came through the text messaging system, just expressing concern, both not knowing really what was going on inside and not knowing what the response [of MDOC] was. And in the course of my reporting, both of their sons got sick and tested positive for the virus. I heard about a near-riot over COVID test results at Gus Harrison. So then I started talking to more people at Gus who were being punished. From there I started talking to people about instances of solitary confinement being used because people were sick. I also started talking to Lois Pullano who runs the MDOC Family Advisory Board. She had been getting a lot of calls about solitary being used for people who were suspected of having COVID. 

SA: You point out in your piece that visitation was shut down in early March as were transfers between prisons. Mass testing of inmates happened but guards still aren’t getting tested unless there is an outbreak-and this is a new policy as of last week. Even though it was not inmates who brought the virus into the facilities you talked to a lot of people who said they felt like they were being punished. People said medical isolation without any possessions felt just like solitary confinement. 

JH: When you’re in prison the threat of punishment and loss of privileges hangs over everything you do. That’s just the general thing I need people to understand. The things that you have to live for in prison are your family visiting, the classes you can take, your yard time, your access to the gym, you know. Those things immediately get taken away when you’re not cooperative with officers or in this case, during a pandemic when every movement needs to shut down. And even pieces of property that we think are so insignificant, a little tiny TV that you need to plug headphones in to watch, people save for months or years. If they get moved to a solitary cell for medical isolation and their TV goes missing or it’s broken in the process, that piece of property is so important. These little freedoms that we take for granted have outsized importance in prison. The fear of losing them weighs over every interaction that people have with power in this setting.

SA: So the state is not doing all it can to control the virus in prisons. But really, what would it take?

JH: So most public health experts would say the only realistic way to control the virus from spreading would be a massive release program to reduce population density in prisons. That would require the Governor to suspend Truth in Sentencing. That falls to the Governor and is a whole political minefield. The MDOC really has done everything they can do under current law to release people eligible for parole. So that is number one, relaxing strict sentencing laws. Number two is a regular mass testing program of guards and staff. MDHHS is the agency that can mandate the testing and the terms of the testing but of course, there are budgetary concerns there-so the accountability is with the legislature too and it’s a financial cost. The MDOC was able to do mass testing of prisoners because the National Guard was there to help. 

SA: Why wasn’t staff tested at that time? 

JH: Exactly. If the national guard is at each facility testing every single prisoner that’s the time to test the guards. The union told me they were not approached by MDOC about testing. But, there was resistance from the union and prison staff to get tested because they were not guaranteed paid leave. At the same time, they were getting extra hazard pay to show up to work. 

SA: I know you weren’t able to include the voices and experiences of as many incarcerated people as you wanted to in this story. Why do you think it’s important to hear directly from these people?

JH: The MDOC will tell you what their policies are. Those can look okay, but it’s only from hearing from people that you understand how those policies play out. Even the power that people are supposed to have, the autonomy they are supposed to have within this kind of system is taken away so often. And, people inside these prisons have very little ability to advocate for themselves through the internal grievance system. And it’s just the basic level of humanity when you hear directly from these individuals. People then become-you know-people rather than crimes. 

SA: I think it’s easy to get overwhelmed by stories that are about systemic breakdowns at every level. If you’re not connected to somebody who is already incarcerated where are those pressure points for accountability? 

JH: The prison code is ultimately determined by the legislature, and who ends up in prison is determined by your local prosecutor. There is a bill that Stephanie Chang just introduced to shine a brighter light on how solitary confinement is used. There are so many organizations working towards transforming prisons so following them and connecting to them lets you know what is happening. The prison is the part that is very closed off but there are a lot of minor political choices that we as citizens make that we might not pay much attention to that are part of this process. 

This conversation was published originally in our monthly newsletter In the House. You can subscribe here.

Finding and filling info gaps during COVID-19

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In Detroit, many of us are worried or fearful or anxious. Many of us are grieving. We are also experiencing what it feels like to be inside an information gap. Trying to navigate the world without information you need to survive is difficult and marginalizing.

At Outlier our news model has always tried to assess and fill information gaps. We continue to do that work now. We are adding more information to our SMS system so Detroiters can get information they need about how to navigate health and safety, food, childcare, and housing during this outbreak. Text “CORONA” to 73224 to tell us what you need right now. We are doing this work with the collaboration and support of news organizations across the city.

We also want to create a record of this time for Detroiters now and in the future and will be working with residents and writers across the city to do that work.

Detroit is being slammed by this disease, and this will be the experience of many other cities and towns as the weeks go on. We are working with reporters in communities across the country to help them quickly identify information needs and then fill those gaps with reliable and accessible reporting.

Outlier is powered by people and we feel anxiety and fear and grief too. We also feel deep gratitude for our wonderful city and those who have to expose themselves to this virus in order to help others. We will continue to work to serve this city and adapt to its changing needs, and we will soon begin to highlight the experiences of Detroiters during this outbreak. As always you can reach all of us through our text system, on email or on the phone.

Detroit has housing issues, but residents have ideas for more solutions

Since a blockbuster Detroit News report found Detroiters had their property overassessed by a total of $600 million between 2010 and 2017, frustration has been palpable. Calls for restitution, always familiar, are more frequent and louder. Solutions put forth by city government — new payment plan options and a $250 million bond proposal to demolish blighted homes — have been met with skepticism or turned down as solutions altogether.

Outlier invited residents, advocates, reporters and experts to come together and have a conversation about challenges and frustrations they face with Detroit housing, but with a focus on the solutions they would like to see in their community.

The following is a catalog of what we heard during that session, followed by a list of housing resources the attendees shared. Some of the ideas have been edited for length or clarity.

  • Quicken Loans should give anyone who qualifies a zero interest home loan if they live in a home for 5 years. Taxes should be forgiven. Anyone who illegally lost their home should be given a Detroit Land Bank Authority home with a zero interest loan.

  • The biggest home repair need we see is roofs. The cost to repair is very expensive and not met by existing grant or emergency programs.

  • Retroactive property tax exemptions.

  • A bond for home repair grants with no income limits because all residents and homeowners will be paying for this bond.

  • Instead of paying demolition companies $15K to $32K in my neighborhood to demo buildings that could be rehabbed, give families a $20K grant for repairs. Train up citizens through Detroit Training Centers.

  • Detroit Public Schools should partner with neighborhoods and builders/trade programs to teach housing rehab. Ann Arbor has a similar program. The money from the sale could be re-invested into the program. This can create safe walking routes, more vibrancy, affordable housing and graduates with skills.

  • We need residents and the government to come together to develop an oversight committee so this never happens again.

  • There are no consequences. There haven’t been consequences for decades for investors who buy up property, don’t keep it up and buy places again and again. There need to be consequences.

  • We need restitution. We can’t overlook the tax foreclosure and Hardest Hit Funds being used for demolition. We need restitution before we can do anything else. We’re giving tax breaks to millionaires. Why don’t we have money for restitution?

  • We should have restitution for individuals who were overcharged and the people who live in the neighborhoods that were decimated by tax foreclosure.

  • We need to go after the property owners who are putting their assets into LLC’s.

  • There is a home repair program in Milwaukee that is a zero percent loan. It doesn’t have to be repaid if you pass the home onto descendants. The loan only has to be repaid if you sell it.

  • We have to find a way to stop the tax foreclosure process or have a moratorium.

  • We need more public housing and better public housing. There are 90,000 properties already owned by the government, so that can be the solution.

  • People have gone through a lot of financial trauma and need help and resources for that trauma.

Resources mentioned:

Race for Profit by  Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
Growing Detroit’s African American Middle Class, a report by Detroit Future City
Modern day redlining reporting from Reveal

Reveal’s lawsuit against the Treasury Department to unmask some LLC’s buying up property

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Choosing service over story: when reporting isn’t enough


By: Sarah Alvarez- Founder and Executive Editor, Outlier Media

Edited by: Imani Mixon- Investigative Reporting Fellow, Outlier Media

On Tuesday night when the temperature plunged to nine degrees and the wind chill to -10 degrees, Terry Montgomery was trying to heat his home on Tyler Street with a space heater. Montgomery was nervous the landlord had stopped paying the heating bill because he had just gotten a letter saying the landlord hadn’t paid the tax bill, meaning the house is likely headed for auction. Montgomery wants to move out, but his immediate need is to stay warm.

It is tax foreclosure season in Detroit. In the first few days of April, a judge will issue foreclosure judgments on homes with unpaid tax debt from 2016 — even if it’s for a few hundred dollars. Right now more than 45,000 homes are subject to foreclosure. Not all of these homes have people living in them, but when they do it is most often renters — more than half of occupied and foreclosed homes last year were rentals. These renters have been calling and texting us over the past few weeks, some are absolutely panicked and some are calm. None of them are resigned because they all want more information about what they can do to keep their housing situation stable. Many, like Montgomery, have even more pressing housing issues.

The past few weeks have been busier than any others since we started our news service three years ago. We are reporters doing triage. We put leads for investigative stories coming from these calls in a spreadsheet so we can get back to them later, we are updating and maintaining the integrity of the data we have but not working on new programming to automatically compile more online data we need. We’re paying for FOIA data and title searches because we don’t have time to be cheap. At the same time, because we are such a small operation, we have to spend a tremendous amount of time raising enough money to sustain us for another year — something that is by no means guaranteed.

Balancing these competing needs is just the rhythm of the day and I am almost never overwhelmed until I confront, in my weakest moments, how audacious it is to put my faith in such a fragile premise. I ask others to believe it too. To believe that information alone can be valuable enough to make a difference.

My belief system lets me down almost every day. Information hasn’t moved the needle for Terry Montgomery and we knew from the outset it was likely to go down like this.

The accountability gaps around utility service in Detroit are so gaping that the work of one small news organization is not enough. State regulations say a utility can’t shut off heat for a renter when it is the landlord who owes money. This information seems powerful but it is useless. Our utility provider, DTE, wouldn’t tell Montgomery or us if there had a been a shut-off or if the heating system was just broken. The only person who can learn if there has been a shutoff is the account holder, which is the landlord in this situation and he already has the information. Renters can’t assert a right they can’t pin down.

A city regulation says rental properties have to be inspected and property without heat would fail. Montgomery was able to get an inspection because we knew who to call, not because we knew they were required. A dedicated person on the city’s communications staff made sure all of our unreturned voicemail messages to the Buildings Department resulted in an emergency inspection.

Three skilled reporters worked on this over two days. We doubled down even though we knew we were unlikely to change anything. As of today, Montgomery still doesn’t have heat. He held back his rent in an attempt to push the landlord to respond to his questions. Now, he also has an eviction notice and yesterday morning part of his bedroom ceiling fell in.

Montgomery sent us pictures of the mess. It is kind of him to do so even though we haven’t been able to be very helpful yet. If he hasn’t lost faith in the power of sharing and demanding information, it makes it less likely that I will.

I need to keep the faith that our work is not meaningless. Reporting, when done with care and intention, can be a true service; this is the only idea I have ever truly evangelized.

We are able to give most of the Detroiters that we talk to the information they need. When we don’t spend all day on these calls I know we’ll be able to devote more time to reporting that exposes corrupt systems and practices.

When I say I know this, I mean today I’m refusing to have a crisis of faith.

 


Outlier is service journalism on demand. We deliver high-value information directly to news consumers over text message and offer every user the ability to connect directly with a reporter. Txt OUTLIER to 73224 to see how it works. If you’re looking for important info on any home in Detroit delivered right to your phone txt DETROIT to 73224.

What is an info gap and why is it bad?

Outlier is a different kind of news organization because we organize our work around filling information gaps.

When there is a disconnect between what the news media covers and what people need to know in order to meet their goals day-to-day, that’s an information gap. It is the difference between, for example, a news story lead poisoning in Flint and information for residents on how to stay safe and who to hold accountable. Some of these gaps are filled by government or social service or advocacy organizations but who’s checking to make sure that information is accurate and useful and that whomever is responsible for the problem gets held accountable? Journalists should be filling information gaps because:

  • they are large
  • they are concentrated
  • the economics of media right now grow these gaps instead of shrink them.

This is not something news organizations are doing on purpose. Basically, it’s economics.

Newspapers and online media make most of their money from advertising.  For public media the biggest chunk of revenue comes from members making donations. These business models depend on the idea of a loyal core audience.They benefit when this audience has more money to spend on subscriptions, memberships or the things advertisers want to sell. News is a hard business to support, so many news organizations want the audience they already have to be loyal more than they want to find new audiences who may have less money to spend. Over time, this had led to news organizations working to please middle and upper middle-class customers over everyone else. These folks don’t suffer from systemic information gaps so the value of most news now is as entertainment.

A lot of issues and perspectives outside those middle income communities don’t get much attention. If they do get covered it is more an exercise in translation for those middle income consumers. Since the news media plays a big role in keeping officials accountable to regular people, where there are information gaps there is also less accountability. Outlier uses data to identify information gaps and then seeks to fill those with valuable and actionable reported information for those who need it most. Watchdog reporting works better when there are more watch dogs, and Outlier seeks to get residents better information so they can create more accountability for themselves and their communities.

More reading:  Known but not discussed in Neiman Lab, Jay Hamilton’s All The News That’s Fit to Sell, Pew Research Center report on local news consumption habits.