The Lexington Herald-Leader went inside Kentucky jails to show why overcrowding is dangerous, deadly and preventable

September 9, 2019

In January, the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader newsroom got a call from a woman who worried that her son was suffering in an overcrowded county jail.

“She alleged – correctly – that the state of Kentucky keeps so many of its state inmates in county jails that living conditions have become dangerous for everyone in these facilities,” said reporter John Cheves.

He spent months touring overcrowded jails and reporting what became “Caged,” a four-day series that shows just how dangerous the situation is.

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You can read more about that project, and another story that takes readers into places they likely haven’t been before, with Zahra Ahmad’s journey to Iraq for MLive-The Flint (Michigan) Journal.

What’s your newsroom working on? Share the work that you’re proud of, and I’ll reach out if we decide to feature it.

All the answers shared here came through a Google form and emails have been edited for length and clarity.

“It helps if your newsroom has a commitment to accountability journalism.” John Cheves, Lexington Herald-Leader

Newsroom: Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader

Newsroom size: About 33

Project: Caged

Who worked on this: Reporting by John Cheves; editing by John Stamper; videos and photography by Marcus Dorsey and Ryan Hermans; video and design from McClatchy.

How did you make this series happen?

To investigate, I spent several months touring some of the most overcrowded jails, speaking to current and former inmates and their families, jailers, lawyers and local and state officials and reviewing lawsuits and inspection records.

Related: Why journalists should cover local jails 

We produced a four-day series, “Caged,” revealing that not only are Kentucky’s local jails recklessly overcrowded but that the state of Kentucky is fully aware of the crisis and largely to blame. People are dying in these jails.

Screenshot, Herald-Leader

What did you learn from the process?

Unfortunately, many people aren’t concerned about what happens to jail inmates, operating on the assumption that everyone in jail is guilty of something and therefore deserves to suffer. They fail to realize that jails are public institutions, just like schools and city halls, and they should be held accountable for how people are treated inside their walls.

Related training: Covering jails

How can other local newsrooms do work like this?

The reporting was time-intensive and involved traveling around the state, so it helps if your newsroom has a commitment to accountability journalism. We also were able to tap resources at our national chain, McClatchy, to create animated videos and craft web design that made the final package more attractive.

“This project has allowed a local newsroom to provide an international story that impacts diverse pockets of its community.” Zahra Ahmad, MLive-The Flint Journal

Newsroom: MLive-The Flint (Michigan) Journal

Newsroom size: Seven

Project: The Journey Home

Who worked on this: Reporting by Zahra Ahmad; photography by Bronte Wittpenn and Jake May; editing by John Counts

How did you make this story happen? 

I connected with family in Iraq, saved up money for a trip back to reunite with them, met a representative from the Pulitzer Crisis Center for Reporting (the project was funded by the Bring Stories Home initiative through the Pulitzer Center) and I was able to recount my journey of rediscovering myself through a five-part series published through MLive.

Zahra Ahmad looks out the window of an Atlas Global flight before departing to Erbil, Iraqi-Kurdistan, from Istanbul Atatrk Airport in Istanbul, Turkey. Brontë Wittpenn | Special to MLive.com

What did you learn from the process?

The process reaffirmed the importance of storytelling in journalism. By sharing my personal experience as an American-Iraqi immigrant, I was able to connect with other immigrants and open the eyes of those who only witnessed Iraq through the U.S.’s coverage of the Iraq War. So many people with Iraqi backgrounds have gotten in contact with me, often thanking us for producing a piece of work that accurately reflects life for Iraqis in both Iraq and the United States. My newsroom in Flint, Michigan, supported this project tremendously. We are a staff of four writers, one intern, a photographer and one editor. My editor, John Counts, worked closely with me to craft the series and pushed me to break down the barriers I’d built growing up. By being vulnerable, I reminded audiences the importance of first-hand experiences and introduced them to thought-provoking content. My community has shown the project a lot of support. We’ve received so many emails thanking MLive for publishing a series like this, often times commenting this is some of the best work the company has done. I’m eternally grateful for the support through the Pulitzer Center and MLive; they believed in me throughout this process.

Related: This project is giving local newsrooms a big resource boost

How can other local newsrooms do work like this?

By challenging and supporting their reporter to produce creative journalism that pushes readers to challenge their inherent perspectives of the world. Partnering with organizations like the Pulitzer Center is a major plus. I believe newsrooms should be looking to partner with more organizations to get projects like mine off the ground. Local newsrooms are often underfunded and understaffed, it takes multifaceted support to facilitate large projects. It’s not impossible to accomplish, however, when newsrooms can partner with organizations like the Pulitzer Center.

With a four-foot, two-pronged, gold sword in her suitcase, Zahra Ahmad walks toward security at Erbil International Airport in Erbil, Iraqi-Kurdistan. Ahmad received the sword when she visited her family for the first time in Baghdad. The sword is called Zulfiqar or Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib's sword. The sword made it through the airports of Baghdad, Erbil, Turkey, Amsterdam, Iceland and Detroit. Brontë Wittpenn | Special to MLive.com

Did your work result in any changes? If yes, tell us about them.

I believe our work changed the perspective tens of thousands of readers in the United States have towards Iraq and the people living there. We were able to humanize a country portrayed only through a single lens during a time of war and conflict in the U.S. Again, we’ve received so many emails thanking the company for taking a risk and telling an important story in a different way. I’ve been asked to go on podcasts to share how the journey was started and what I’ve learned. We’re also partnering with the local University of Michigan-Flint Arab Heritage Council to put together a panel specifically aimed at Arab-American youths. We want to share our experiences as third-culture kids, people who aren’t initially from the U.S. but grew up in the U.S. and embrace three separate cultures: The American culture, our heritage’s culture and our own culture, which we’ve created by experiencing both cultures. I’ve also been invited to do a Hero’s Round Table discussion (kind of like a TedTalk in Michigan) on the journey as well as visit middle school social studies classes to talk about Iraq. This project has allowed a local newsroom to provide an international story that impacts diverse pockets of its community.

Kristen Hare writes about local news for Poynter. You can reach her at khare@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare.

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