The trouble with reporting on prisons is that most of the people you need to talk to don’t want to talk, for one reason or another.
As veteran reporter Tom Robbins tells Assistant Managing Editor Eric Umansky and Senior Reporter Jesse Eisinger in today’s podcast, his recent, gripping New York Times story on a 2011 beating at New York's infamous Attica prison-- the first to result in criminal charges against New York corrections officers for a nonsexual assault on an inmate -- ran into the typical obstacles.
Prison authorities wouldn’t grant him access, Robbins says, even though the Department of Corrections’ own website advertises tours for schools and youth programs. “So after they said no I called back -- I said, ‘Did I mention the fact that I teach journalism at the CUNY graduate school?’ ” he recalls. No dice.
Inmates are understandably reluctant to talk, Robbins says, out of fear of retribution. But as he sought details in the 2011 beating – which left inmate George Williams with broken legs, a broken shoulder and eye socket and cracked ribs – he found many willing to take a stand. “Some of them said, ‘Use my name, go ahead and use my name,’ ” he says, but he opted not to. “There’s no way to protect them,” he says, “and that’s one of my real concerns.”
Robbins ended up making three trips last summer and fall to talk to individual inmates, trying to flesh out a story that had gone largely unnoticed when charges were files against the guards. His investigation of the incident – a partnership between the Marshall Project and The New York Times – made waves across the state and the country a few weeks ago, just as the trial was to begin.
The guards ended up pleading guilty, in a deal that dropped the charges to misdemeanors and involved no jail time.
Robbins also talked about a few things that didn't make it into his story, including the role of race in prisons: In 2013, for example, a Christmas tree at Attica was topped by a white Ku Klux Klan hat, he says.
Tomorrow: Podcast extras from the conversation with Robbins, including a “Perry Mason moment” from his long career as an investigative journalist.