Saturday, March 29, 2008

Jail Story a Mystery

DeSoto County’s jail was inspected last week by a federal consulting team and Our Man in Arcadia, delivered the initial report by scrubbing his text clean of any mention of the first and fifth W’s, who and why.

OMIA gives no hint as to why the consultants rolled into town. Was it because someone complained about the jail? Was it because the jail is evaluated every so often and it was time? Maybe it was because it’s cold up north and the inspectors needed a Florida interlude. Readers will never know because OMIA isn’t telling.

OMIA also omits any mention of what National Institute of Corrections is. Is this a private group? A membership organization? Not that one would know by reading the story, but it’s a federal bureau: So what is its mission or objective? What government department oversees it? Not that one would know from the story, but it’s a drawer in a bureau run by the Justice Department. Does it fund local initiatives? Are its recommendations mandates? (Strangely, the headline writer got it right – despite Lawhorne’s omission of the word “federal” from anywhere in the story.)

Clearly, it’s too much trouble for OMIA to check out the agency and tell readers where it’s headquartered, how large it is, and if this is its first look at our little town’s jail – or any other detail that might put this jail-review trip into a meaningful context.

Lawhorne does get around to sharing that “most of the jail’s woes are due to overcrowding.” That said, the reporter has an obligation to tell readers what some of those woes are. He doesn’t mention one.

Later in the story, OMIA tells readers the reviewers said local jail staff “performed well in spite of the major problems evidenced under crowded conditions.” For the second time, OMIA has an opportunity to tell readers what those major problems are. Are disease rates up? Is food in short supply? Are there fights among inmates or between inmates and staff? Is drug usage common? Does the roof leak? OMIA teases readers but he won’t tell.

By reading between the lines – Arcadians have to do this a lot – we can sort of guess that the consultants told local commissioners to build a new jail. Nose for News Lawhorne, always on top of the story, reports “there was little discussion about where the money would come from...” Since there was at least a little discussion, Nose for News would actually be doing his job if he reported even that smallest smidgen of this discussion.

Instead of real news on an important topic, OMIA gives us these gems...

About 10 to 15 percent of inmates are females, at any given time.”
And the rest of the time, they’re men? Maybe shapeshifting is one of the problems that Lawhorne won’t go into.

“On Friday, the consultants met with county and state justice officials ...” Given that the lead is they came to town and inspected the jail, this seems like same old news all over again in the third graf.

In other news:

Headline: County seeks fees for emergency services.

Story: The fire chief asks county commissioners two write a local ordinance enabling him to charge some emergency-service users for goods and services. The commissioners say they'll think about it and table the matter “pending more information.”

Dear Copy Desk Headline Writers: The story doesn’t report the county is seeking fees for emergency services. It reports the county tabled a request. There’s difference. Read the story.

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