A Message from Outlier Media

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Outlier Media is preparing for some major changes as we look to the future. We are broadening our focus a bit, but we remain dedicated to filling local information and accountability gaps.

When Outlier Media started five years ago, we wanted to build a news service for people who are undervalued by most newsrooms – low-income communities and people of color. Too often, legacy news organizations write only about – but not for – these communities and focus instead on an ideal reader that already has the information and resources they need. That focus makes information and accountability gaps worse for communities that can least afford them.

We wanted to take the basics of good reporting – rigor, clarity, accessibility, and public service – and discard almost everything else about how the news is delivered and to whom. We believed it was possible to deliver good information to the people who need it most – and hold institutions accountable to those communities.

We have been successful in creating Outlier Media as you know it today: A source of news in Detroit tackling critical issues: tax foreclosure, blight, eviction, utilities, and now even COVID-19 and voting. We get the information directly to those who need it with our SMS-based distribution. But in our work, we haven’t been able to tackle the second part of our mission: the accountability gap.  

That’s the gap we want to focus on next. 

Thanks to a generous grant from the Democracy Fund, we will spend the next few months reporting about how newsrooms can truly hold those in power to account for their actions. Our team wants to better understand what makes accountability reporting successful — and what causes it to fall short. We want to make these practices replicable even by smaller newsrooms driven to do this important work. We think this is a reporting project we simply have to undertake so the work that comes after can have a more likely impact. 

That doesn’t mean that Outlier Media is changing the fundamentals. We are keeping our SMS-based information services in Detroit active, and we are developing a new platform that will allow local newsrooms to connect with that pipeline. We also plan to finally get around to building our own publishing platform. 

This is not an ideal time to shift from our existing work, but we feel compelled. Our democracy and our communities depend on journalists being able to do high-impact reporting that holds institutions – including media – accountable to their communities. But, we are also seeing a tremendous amount of harm over the past few years that needs to be addressed if we want a future where that harm is lessened. And so, we here at Outlier Media think it’s our job to try to meet this moment.

As we change our focus, our team is also changing. Our beloved data reporter, Katlyn Alo, is joining the staff of the San Francisco Chronicle as a newsroom developer. There, she will continue to work on ambitious reporting projects and grow her skill set. But she isn’t leaving us entirely: Katlyn will be joining our Board of Advisors.

Additionally, we decided not to finalize a merger with the MuckRock Foundation that was announced earlier this year. We are moving forward as an independent organization. MuckRock has moved to a fiscal sponsor support role for Outlier and they remain an important collaborator.

We want to work with a community of practice with aligned values. If you are interested in collaboration, advising us or creating meaningful partnerships we want to hear from you. Send us an email and let’s work together towards a future of accountability for communities who have suffered in its absence. 

We expect more change will come. But our dedication to building inclusive, collaborative, public service journalism has not wavered. We look forward to what we can do together. 

Are Michigan Prisons Above the Law?

Only six states have had more COVID cases in their prisons than Michigan. Why isn’t there more accountability?

By Joey Horan for Outlier Media

Ursula Bolton and her son, Jewaun McClaine, have been advocating for better treatment inside of Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, Michigan’s only female prison, since before the pandemic. But they say things have gotten worse since the August publication of Outlier’s investigation on the Michigan Department of Corrections’ COVID-19 response, in which Bolton and McClaine were key sources.

Bolton, who is incarcerated at Women’s Huron Valley (WHV), is still feeling the physical effects of COVID-19. She caught the virus in the prison in April and ended up on a ventilator for three weeks at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Ypsilanti.

Now, it’s the social isolation and bureaucratic hurdles that are making life increasingly difficult for Bolton. Like all of the 35,000 people in the Michigan Department of Corrections prisons, she has not received a visit from the outside world since March 13.

In this heavily surveilled and controlled environment, Bolton works hard to hold MDOC accountable for their treatment of incarcerated people. McClaine does the same from the outside. But both say accountability is difficult to come by.

“I’ve been told my expectations are too high,” Bolton said. “I just want to be treated like a human being.”

“We’re all here to serve time. What I try to get people to understand is when they’re violating our rights, why shouldn’t they pay the penalty just like we are?”

Outlier published an investigation in late August that looked into MDOC’s response to COVID-19. My reporting found that the agency’s measures to stem the spread of the virus were often ineffective, punitive, and in some cases, created chaos and confusion.

Even now, MDOC only requires widespread testing of facility staff — the only way for the virus to enter prisons — when people inside an MDOC facility have already tested positive. For many inmates I spoke to, the medical isolation they were subjected to felt more like solitary confinement than quarantine. 

After the publication of the story, Bolton wanted to see her story in print and learn what was happening in other facilities. 

I attempted to send the article to Bolton and other sources at WHV through JPay, a prison electronic messaging service, and the mail. The MDOC, which controls communication into its facilities as a safety measure, rejected the article in both cases.  

The JPay was rejected, Bolton said, for being a “Danger to Emotional/Mental Health.”

The printed copy of the story was rejected by the WHV mailroom for being a “THREAT TO SECURITY,” according to the return notice I received postmarked September 11.

Jessica Shumate, who is also incarcerated at Women’s Huron Valley and requested a copy of the story, said the rejections were ironic.

“The treatment that the staff gives to us and the way that they bend policy to their benefit isn’t [damaging to emotional and mental health] but a story about the lack of care and poor treatment are [sic].”

Chris Gautz, an MDOC spokesperson, confirmed that Huron Valley officials felt the contents of the article “could threaten the order of the facility.”

“The safety and security of our facilities, and those who live and work there, is of critical importance and prisoners are prohibited from receiving mail that may pose a threat to that security, order, or discipline of the facility,” he said.

Gautz denies there is anything personal in their censorship. “The MDOC does not retaliate,” he said. 

But Bolton says she believes prison officials are retaliating against her for speaking to Outlier and for her frequent attempts to hold WHV officials accountable. 

“A lot of the attitude around here is that this is prison, nothing’s going to ever change, there’s nothing we can do, but it does matter to me how other women are being treated in here, and I feel like people need to know about it.”

Bolton has a range of complaints related to how she was treated during the COVID-19 outbreak at WHV. 

After coming off of the ventilator at St. Joseph’s, Bolton was transferred back to WHV and put into solitary confinement for medical observation for two weeks, even though she was in a state of delirium according to her and hospital records. 

The process for Bolton to address that treatment is through MDOC’s official grievance process, which Bolton has tried, only to have grievance after grievance rejected. The latest set of grievances related to her COVID-19 treatment were all rejected because they were filed too late after the problems they described.

“These happened when I was delirious or in the hospital. So there was no way that I could fill this stuff out,” she said. “The whole process is set up for us to fail.” 

As a result of filing three rejected grievances in a 30-day window, Bolton cannot file any grievances for three months without the sign off of a prison official.

For every step Bolton takes on the inside, her son, McClaine follows up on the outside. Still, he feels they have exhausted all the resources available to them.

Bolton and McClaine have filed complaints and sent letters to numerous outside agencies about her treatment, including to the Michigan Legislative Council Ombudsman, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, the Board of Medical Ethics, and the governor’s office.

From the big issues to the small, McClaine encounters roadblocks. 

For months, he’s been trying to get his mother’s partial denture replaced, which was lost during her transfer to the hospital.

“I’ve contacted the prison, the MDOC, I think the governor’s office three times,” he said. “And she still hasn’t even received the form she needs to get that done. And, you know, that was lost in April.” 

McClaine has spoken to several lawyers about suing the state over his mother’s medical treatment. 

So far, the lawyers he has spoken to are hesitant to sue the state or the legal costs are too high, McClaine said.

“Right now, the only recourse we have is to really plead with the state for better treatment,” he said.

“Really, all that we can do at this time is to keep trying.”
This article was published originally in our monthly newsletter In the House. You can subscribe here.

Is prison health public health?

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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