Watchdog Q&A

Published — February 28, 2020

Q&A: Samantha Melamed reports on our broken criminal justice system

Injured federal prison workers, along with other government employees, could lose benefits under legislation pending in Congress.

Introduction

We’re continuing our series featuring reporters who have reported powerful stories. This week, we’re highlighting Samantha Melamed and her six-part series for the Philadelphia Inquirer about how the criminal justice system is tearing communities apart — including a piece on how generations of fathers and sons are being locked up together. She ran into trouble finding sources that’d speak openly with her, but she kept at it to reveal the intricacies of a broken system.

How did you get the story? What led you to pursue it?

Whenever I would cover a case in Philadelphia’s criminal court, I’d first find myself sitting through innumerable violation-of-probation hearings — low-level proceedings that were never deemed worthy of coverage. But what happened at those hearings often left me stunned: judges prescribing Vivitrol from the bench, or violating people who had become homeless for “unauthorized change of address,” or sentencing them to years in state prison for a missed appointment or positive drug test. 

None of these incidents was news on its own, but I recognized that they were part of a system that has a stranglehold on Philadelphia’s poorest communities, especially communities of color. That inkling grew into a six-part series on how the system works and what it does to people’s lives.

What were the challenges of reporting and how did you navigate them? Where do you look for inspiration? Or your favorite investigative story?

People on probation are often navigating poverty, legal obligations, family demands and the uncertainty and fear that come with constant surveillance and the threat of incarceration. They would often disappear for long stretches, their phones would go out of service, or they’d have second thoughts. We also ran into court officials who refused to answer questions, probation staff who were fearful of talking, and judges who were pressured to remain silent. And, jails censored our communications with incarcerated people and denied visitation requests. 

I wish I could say I came up with a brilliant solution to these challenges –– but for the most part it just meant we had to work harder, interview more sources, attend more court hearings, show more empathy, and stay in closer contact with those who agreed to participate, embedding ourselves in their lives until we became part of the furniture.

The takeaway: Sometimes, you need to look at the bigger picture to see how the system is hurting people. 

Read more in Inside Public Integrity

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