Watchdog Q&A

Published — June 26, 2020

Q&A: R.G. Dunlop on how Kentucky chose profits over prisoners’ health

Prisoners populate a yard at a state penitentiary. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Introduction

We’re continuing our series featuring journalists who have written powerful stories. We spoke to R.G. Dunlop about how Kentucky jailers profit from selling e-cigarettes to inmates. The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting piece revealed that those sales raked in more than $1.3 million in 2018. And while health concerns led to a 2014 ban on e-cigarettes in the state’s prisons, officials opposed restrictions on the use of vaping products in county jails. All in all, profits from e-cigarette sales beat out health concerns for thousands of Kentucky inmates. 

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

The story began, as many do, with a tip from a trusted source. The source raised questions about one jailer’s possible improper involvement in the e-cigarette business. But I wanted more than one isolated case of apparent wrongdoing. Was there a pattern? Just how widespread was the problem?



So I began making calls — lots of calls, dozens of calls, probably several hundred calls— to people around the state. And while many of those calls yielded little or nothing, as is often the case, I did eventually gather and corroborate enough information to produce what we published and aired. We ended up with stories that raised questions about seven or eight jailers and jail officials, not just the initial, lone example, and those stories delved into issues that went well beyond the original tipster’s allegations.

The stories intrigued me because I have written about other issues pertaining to jailers and have long believed that they deserve much more critical scrutiny than they typically receive from the public, or from public officials.

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

The challenges of reporting the stories are not unlike those raised by most other investigative efforts: finding credible sources who are willing to talk publicly and/or direct the reporter to documents that support allegations, as well as finding useful documents on my own; making good-faith efforts to contact and interview those officials about whom questions were being raised.

Navigating these challenges was pretty much the norm in investigative reporting: keep pushing, keep pushing, keep pushing, not only on weekdays but also, if necessary, at night and on weekends. Calling, calling and calling again, emailing, emailing and emailing again. Once I was asked to stop communicating, I always complied. But getting no answer at all simply encouraged me to keep trying.

Inspiration for investigative reporting is pretty much ingrained, in my opinion. For me, it has long been my passion.

Takeaway: Always keep pushing.

Read more in Inside Public Integrity

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