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.

Hiring: Reporter to cover information needs in Metro Detroit in Arabic for Outlier Media (Temporary position)

Photo by Thomas Martinsen on Unsplash

About Outlier Media

Outlier Media is a news service based in Detroit, Michigan filling information and accountability gaps since 2017. We seek to fill the news needs of low-income residents who make up at least two-thirds of the city but are poorly served by other news outlets. By keeping residents first, we hope to give more than we take and leave people with the information they need to create change in their communities. Outlier is an organization of people who deeply believe you must live your organizational values. We want to work with people who are motivated to use their skills to unlock more accountability, especially in low wealth communities and communities of color.

Outlier is an innovative, collaborative and supportive journalism organization. We are a small shop but have collaborators and supporters all over the city and the country.

The Position

Outlier is looking for a quality-driven and creative reporter to help us meet the needs of Arabic speakers in Metro Detroit. This reporter will help respond directly to news consumers through our SMS product, will report original stories and will collaborate on future news products.

Responsibilities:

  • Work  inside the text message feed to meet news consumers daily information needs
  • Identify information or accountability gaps from SMS feed and rigorous reporting
  • Report out and publish work tot help fill accountability gaps

Compensation:

$32/hour for 30 hours per week

Employment Term:

This is a temporary contract position lasting six months from the date of hire. This position was made possible in part thanks to a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project. As an organization, Outlier is always working to expand our resources so we can grow our team and cover more communities and work with more talented journalists. This position is no exception. If there is an opportunity to expand this role or lengthen the term we will make it happen and remain transparent about your future with Outlier.

Necessary skills and experience

  • Two years of reporting experience
  • Fluent in Arabic
  • Detail oriented
  • Must believe in relentless fact-checking 
  • Ability to work collaboratively and respectfully with individuals and news organizations throughout the community
  • Applicants must be living in Metro Detroit, but the position will be remote.

Are you ready to apply?

To apply, please send the following to sarah@outliermedia.org by 5 p.m. EST, Wednesday, July 29:

  • Your resume/CV.
  • A cover letter/statement of interest. Tell us why you are a good fit for Outlier Media. What does journalism at the intersection of poverty, power and policy look like to you?
  • Links to at least four work samples your consider relevant to this role. This can be written, audio or video.

We encourage members of traditionally underrepresented communities to apply, including women, people of color, LGBTQ people and people with disabilities.

Applicants have rights under Federal Employment Laws and we want you to be informed about what they are. Make sure to review the federal policies that protect you in this, and all workspaces: Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO)

Outlier Media Retools for COVID-19 Response in Detroit

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At Outlier Media we have replaced the SMS system we use for housing info in Detroit to meet your information needs related to COVID-19 in Detroit and the metro area. Text “Detroit” to 73224 to get information to help you make decisions for yourself and your family. If you don’t find an answer in our text system you can always choose option six which will connect you to a local journalists from our newsroom or other local reporters.

Want to know how we handle your privacy? Click here.

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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Housing Detroit: A Community Conversation on the Issues and Solutions

Outlier Media Presents: Aaron Glantz

Aaron is the author of Homewreckers!  How a Gang of Wall Street Kingpins, Hedge Fund Magnates, Crooked Banks,& Vulture Capitalists Suckered Millions Out of Their Homes & Demolished the American Dream. He will visit the Detroit Public Library Main Branch to talk about his book and for a conversation about housing in Detroit moderated by Outlier Executive Editor, Sarah Alvarez.

Homewreckers brilliantly weaves together the stories of those most ravaged by the housing crisis. The result is an eye-opening expose of the greed that decimated millions and enriched a gluttonous few.

Aaron exposes the high class rip-offs – among them, D.Trump and cronies, who often used taxpayer money to make fortunes off the working class and the middle class. Homewreckers! shows us the mad greed that harmed or ruined millions while further fattening the gluttonous few. Glantz recounts the transformation of straightforward lending into a morass of slivered and combined mortgage “products” that could be bought and sold, accompanied by a shift in priorities and a loosening of regulations and laws that made it good business to lend money to those who wouldn’t be able to repay.

Aaron Glantz is a senior reporter at Reveal who produces public interest journalism with impact. His reporting has sparked more than a dozen Congressional hearings, a raft of federal legislation and led to criminal probes by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and the Federal Trade Commission. He is also the author of three books including “The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle Against America’s Veterans.”  His work has appeared in a broad range of media outlets, including The New York Times, NBC News, ABC News and the PBS NewsHour, where his work has twice been nominated for a national Emmy Award. He’s been given a Peabody Award, an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award and Online News Association award.

A very special thank you to our media partners for this event:

Visit & Learn at Outlier Media

Join us on Sept. 27 for a day of sharing and learning with Outlier Media. This event is hosted by Outlier Media and the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University through the Peer Learning + Collaboration Fund.

The day will include a deep-dive into how Outlier Media works, open discussion with its founder and team, and a reporting bus tour to show attendees who Outlier is serving. Lunch will be provided.

There is no fee to attend, although a $25 deposit will be required as space is limited and some folks will be traveling from quite a ways to make the trip — we can’t have anyone taking a seat who won’t show up. The deposit will be refunded the day after the event.

The Center for Cooperative Media is making available travel stipends for journalists who would otherwise not be able to attend this convening through the Peer Learning + Collaboration Fund. The deposit will be waived for Peer Fund award winners. Apply ASAP so you can get your grant before the trip! We strongly encourage newsrooms who have the funds to cover their staff’s travel costs.

APPLY HERE

Note that if you’re applying for a travel award through the Peer Fund, you must do that AND reserve your spot via this Eventbrite page.

If you have any questions, contact Stefanie Murray at murrayst@montclair.edu.

Detroit Tax Foreclosure 101: What You Need to Know

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There are a few news stories every year about Wayne County’s tax foreclosure auction. We’ve done those stories too, because we know people want and need information about the impact of this event on individual residents and the city. Still, we wanted to do something with our years of tax auction reporting that might be more useful than a story so we developed this tax auction 101 guide. The information in this guide is reported and verified with the help of thousands of Outlier users. One side is information for those who are worried about how tax foreclosure might impact them. The other side is for all Detroiters who want to understand how the tax auction continues to impact the city. Our next report will help you understand why many Detroiters are seeing their water bills go up-even as they use less water.  

Just hover over the image to turn the page or download this guide-and feel free to share!

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The way things have always been done does not the right way make: an essay for reporters

When you take a job at a small organization that is trying to re-envision a longstanding industry the kind of industry with deep old boys club this*is*how*things*are*done roots you’re quick to come up with an elevator pitch. I tell people I’m a journalist, and people usually understand that. I say I’m a data reporter, still on the same page.

But then I say I’m a news apps developer for a small service journalism startup that specifically targets the housing information needs of low-income Detroiters via SMS, and I usually get some flustered blinking, maybe an uncertain half-smile, or, “that sounds cool,” which really means, “you’ve lost my interest.”  1

Our organization was founded to respond to people who have been historically ignored. We report on housing because 2-1-1 data says that’s the subject people call most about. We deliver our news product over SMS (yes, good old-fashioned, green bubble text messages) because 60% of Detroiters don’t have consistent access to internet. That’s our bread and butter.

The texting service also allows us to directly interact with our news consumers and understand where the stories actually are. It’s how we learn that agencies that advertise being able to help with heat shut-offs in the dead of winter are turning people away. It’s how we learn that residents can complain about a dangerous neighboring property for over a decade and the city still won’t tear it down or clean it up.

Our secondary product is much more traditional. We write articles to be published by newsrooms like The Detroit News and Bridge Magazine– always investigative accountability reporting, always focused on housing, and always a story we pursued because there was an issue that wasn’t actionable enough to just send info via text.

Take for instance, this story on a property management company in Brightmoor (a west side neighborhood) that used red balloons to scarlet letter tenants behind on their rent. There wasn’t anything actionable we could tell those residents, no real channel for recourse, but we could draw public attention to it.

I’m an outsider, raised mostly in Denver and recently graduated from the heart of Silicon Valley. There are a lot of things that I still don’t know about Detroit (For example, I’ve been to one coney island. I’m a vegetarian, so all I can say is that I thought the fries were bland and I just don’t get it.). I do know that, if you are honestly trying to get crucial information to people who are struggling to pay for utilities, making an app free on iOS isn’t just stupid; it’s a cruel joke.

Make no mistake, the Outlier Media model is a call out. We are calling out all the newsrooms that have been publishing poverty porn for high income audiences 2 and not doing a damn thing to get information that could help the people affected by the issue  INFORMATION THAT THEY HAVE CERTAINLY COLLECTED OVER THE COURSE OF THEIR REPORTING  to the impacted communities.

Thank you to all the incredible pioneers of service journalism who are marching with courage into unknown territory and certain scrutiny for the good of our industry. Thank you to all the reporters that push for access and responsiveness in every editorial meeting, only to be shut down or treated like a thorn in an editor’s side. Change is painful, but it’s coming. We are at a time when skepticism of the industry could not be better justified. Working on a team that wants to change that industry narrative makes me feel incredibly grateful to be a part of it.


1 Other times, I get this sort of grimace that means I’ve come off as a self-righteous do-gooder. Probably because that person is about to tell me they, in some manner, make the rich richer or something. But it isn’t my job to keep you from being reminded that the rich get rich at other people’s expense.

2 We get it: you need to keep the lights on with advertising revenue. But you can stop being so damn predatory about exploiting people’s stories and damaging their reputation FOREVER because the internet is FOREVER.

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.