PRISONERS: GOOD NEWS OR BAD NEWS?


©1999 www.nebraskapen.org Last update: 04/07/00

Why is it that you seldom, if ever, hear anything positive about someone who has been or is incarcerated? Or rational well thought-out ideas and opinions from someone that has had that awful label of "prisoner"? Can you easily recall any stories where a person who had paid their debt to society was deemed newsworthy enough to cover for doing positive things that are a benefit to society?

Is The Media Believable?

Even the media see themselves as not being credible in the way they report the news. In a March 31, 1999, AP story in the Lincoln Journal Star the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, interviews of 522 journalists found that many reporters use their articles and newscasts to speculate or state opinion and that financial pressures hamper the quality of the news coverage.

In the story, Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism says, "A solid majority of journalists now are extremely critical of their profession on questions of news blurring with entertainment and commentary blurring with reporting."

Bad Guys Gone Good?

So there are reasons that positive stories about prisoners are seldom reported on. It is not because they do not exist. 98% of people who are incarcerated are released at some point and the majority of them never again commit a crime. Thanks in large to the media, society tends to believe that people who have committed a crime never do things to contribute to society. The general public seems to write-off a person the very minute they are charged with a crime, whether or not the person actually committed the crime. Then, no matter what that person may do from then on, no matter what good they do, society will never pencil them back into its lineup by simply accepting them as a trusted and worthy citizen. But they are the ones that have obtained valuable first-hand knowledge of what does and doesn't work. They have ideas and opinions that will work in making the judicial and correctional systems better and more fair. But society still views them as questionable people even if at some point they are proven innocent of the charges against them.

It also seems that the more infamous the crime that a person has committed the less likely he or she will ever be viewed or remembered as a positive contributor to society, or as someone whose opinions do matter and have importance. No matter what lengths they may go through to make-up for what they did in the past, society is too much like the elephant that never forgets.

John Wesley Hardin

Society's selective memory is clearly pointed out in the case of John Wesley Hardin. Hardin was noted in history as the meanest man in the Old West. Some say he once shot a man to death just for snoring too loud! The history books say he likely killed over 40 men in his native Texas, but since most of those he killed were said to be Yankees many people felt like they needed killing anyway, which is pretty close to how people feel about people behind bars today.

Hardin eventually served 15 years in prison in Huntsville, Texas for the wrongs he had committed. While he was there he was named Captain of the Debate Team for the prison. He also taught Sunday School, where he often advised others by quoting the Old Testament to avoid falling in with bad company. In the two years that followed his release from prison he did not commit any other crimes, but was murdered himself at the age of 42. He had tried to be accepted back into society after paying his debt to it, but his request was canceled at the end of a gun.

The Younger Brothers

Remember the outlaw Younger Brothers? They are recorded in the history books along side Frank and Jesse James. While incarcerated in Minnesota, following the robbery of the bank at Northfield, Minnesota, they helped start the nations first and longest published prison newspaper, "The Stillwater Mirror." How many people would ever think of the Younger Brothers as journalistic pioneers, but they were!

Where Have All The Good Stories Gone?

Unfortunately times have changed very little since the days of the Old West, or at least the attitudes and perspectives of people have not. I doubt that stories on how a former prisoner made his or her way back into society as a productive contributor would sell many newspapers or attract many viewers, do you? in fact, former prisoners shun publicity as much as possible because once it is common knowledge that they have been in prison society treats them as if they had some terrible disease that might rub off on them if they get too close. If society did not act this way and were not so prejudiced against ex-prisoners then the papers and the TV tabloid shows would be filled with success stories about the large number of ex-prisoners that have returned to the free world and contributed to it. That sure would put Jerry Springer out of work in a hurry! It is sad, but true, to think that society usually is not at all interested in, or titillated by positive stories of people that have been branded as bad. "Woe unto them who call good, evil and who call evil good."

A Chance To Speak Out?

Recently the Omaha World Herald made the judgment not to print an ad from a group of supporters of two Nebraska inmates. "Mondo," aka David Rice, and Ed Poindexter have been incarcerated since the 1970's for the murder of an Omaha police officer. The ad only pointed out the same facts that have come to light about how the investigation into the death of Officer Minard was conducted and how the prosecutors in the case against these two men used undue force to obtain testimony that the prosecution wanted to be heard, regardless of whether or not it was true.

Many factors contribute to why these two men are still incarcerated. But the use of so-called editorial license by the World Herald to reject this paid ad amounts to yellow journalism at best, and at worst a denial of freedom of expression with racial prejudice at the core of this rotten mess. The World Herald is well known for not printing letters written by prisoners, nor printing anything that portrays former prisoners in a positive light.

Is Anybody at Home?

Maybe it is too easy to point the finger of blame at the media for these attitudes. The media only follow the trends and desires of the public which buys their services. If the public were to demand that such things as murder trials and stories of repeat offenders stop being the "big" story then the media would have little choice but to submit to these wishes, or they would soon be out of business. If the public recognized that such stories only served to make the victim and their families relive the horror of what they have already suffered through perhaps their attitude would change. The only way to begin this change is to educate and inform people about the other side of the judicial picture, from the inside out.

What You See Isn't What You Get

Too often people think the police, prosecutors, and judges are as pure and infallible as God. Guilt or innocence seems to matter very little to these public servants and they have put innocent people behind prison walls. The organization of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) recently found that at least 12% of the total prison population in the U.S. are innocent of the crime they are serving time for. In Nebraska that would be over 300 innocent people locked away from their families and lives.

True enough, public servants do try to serve the public's interests as best they can and as they perceive them to be. It seems the perception they have is that the public wants them to avenge wrongdoing in a quick and severe way. Punishment seems to be more important than justice and 'closure' more important than the truth. This fire feeds the creation of such ideas as the Three Strikes Laws and Habitual Criminal Statutes. The public believes these laws guarantee that those people with more than two felony convictions will be sent to prison for a much longer time. But that isn't what is happening.

What You Don't See

What really happens is that prosecutors use these laws to pressure guilty pleas out of people with prior convictions. Even though a person with felony convictions still has a right to a trial where their guilt has to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt it is a very risky gamble for them. If such a person takes the witness stand in their own defense the jury can be informed of their prior convictions. Knowing this, prosecutors use the Three Strikes and Habitual Criminal laws as a threat to get these people to plead guilty to something and save the state the trouble of a trial. Many times the crime they plead guilty to is something they haven't done.

What They Don't Tell You

You don't think someone would plead guilty to a crime they didn't commit? Go ask a lawyer friend what an Alford plea is. The U.S. Supreme Court said it was OK for a court to accept a guilty plea even where the defendant claims he did not commit the crime. That was in 1970 in the case, North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25, 91 S.Ct. 160.

If Nebraska's Habitual Criminal law were really being used to keep habitual criminals in prison then every person with more than two felony convictions would be sentenced under the Habitual Criminal statute, right? In fact by some measures, it may be that as few as 3% are sentenced as habitual criminals. See, Brown v. Parratt, 560 F.2d 303, 304 (Of 104 defendants eligible to be charged as habitual offenders, only 3 were deemed so.)

Public Imagery Number One?

The media tend to follow the public's lead and accepts what the courts and judicial system do as correct, moral, and just. The public watches those tragic and awful stories and shake their heads wondering how things like this can happen. Who would even know of Charlie Manson except for the media that made him out to be Public Enemy Number One, by using the public's fascination with the crime that he committed. Maybe if murder stories, like that one, were regulated to the same coverage that the now commonplace space shuttle missions get there might be fewer murders committed. Isn't it worth a try? If the public craved positive stories about people who have rebuilt their lives and repaid society for any wrong they had done don't you think that some of today's youth would see that the only way to get your picture in the paper or on TV is by doing positive things? What if the only way to get on the Jerry Springer show was by doing something good?

Prisoners Do Contribute

There are many contributions being made to society by current and past prisoners that happen without any attention from the media. Did you know that much of the electrical wiring for the space shuttles were assembled in prison? Or that all the furniture in Federal courtrooms, and some state offices and courtrooms, are built by prisoners, saving the taxpayers millions of dollars a year? Facts like these are seldom presented to the public.

These are some of the reasons this website exists. It is an effort to change the attitudes and misconceptions of the media, the public, and its servants. The views and opinions of prisoners get very little media time and focus, generally because that is how the public wants it. Maybe reading the information presented here will change the public's desires, if only just a little. From that change a real change in the attitude of those returning to society from prison can begin, once they feel accepted back into society as productive and equal citizens.

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