Donor support helped the Monitor break story about COVID and a local jail

Andrew Howard’s article about the York County Jail turning inmates away didn’t happen easily. In the end, the truth came out.

by | December 5, 2021

Thanks to support from The Monitor's donors, reporter Andrew Howard has been able to produce two stories, including one out today, on how COVID-19 has impacted staffing and inmate-report dates at the York County Jail. Photo by Nora Walsh Conrad.

Readers might presume that when journalists from The Maine Monitor call public officials for information, or to comment on facts that we already know, they reply promptly with the answers we need.

It rarely works that way, especially when the nature of the inquiry concerns a mistake or problem.

When we run into resistance, reporters at the Monitor just keep going. And your support — your financial donations, your newsletter subscriptions (even though they’re free) – is crucial as our small but passionate team ferrets out the truth.

A recent example involves Andrew Howard’s Nov. 7 report about how COVID-19 has affected staffing at the York County Jail so extensively that would-be inmates who report to serve their sentences are being turned away instead.

That story originated with a tip to Andrew’s colleague, Samantha Hogan, who since her start here in 2019 has developed an expertise investigating the Maine judicial system. Samantha is working on a major project, so the task to follow up on this particular tip went to Andrew.

As you might expect, Andrew began by making predictable phone calls: to the York County sheriff, the county jail, and the administrator for the Maine judicial system. It would be unfair to say they blocked Andrew’s initial efforts. Rather, the answers Andrew received were general and vague to the point of shedding little light on the situation.

No one seemed to have a clear grasp of what has happening. Or if they did, they didn’t want to elaborate.

The Monitor did know that Maine District Court Judge Jeffrey Moskowitz ordered a Dec. 3 hearing about the situation. We knew that a top defense lawyer was going. We knew the defendants who tried to “self-report” to jail were told to attend as well. (You can read Andrew’s follow-up story at our site today.)

That was a start, but it wasn’t enough to write a thorough article.

The next step was clear: A road trip was needed. Andrew, who lives in Brunswick and splits work time between home and the Monitor’s Augusta office, headed to Alfred and the York County Court House.

What happened next is the kind of small but important interaction that can break a story open.

At the courthouse, Andrew talked to an employee who confirmed that inmates were being turned away from jail, and that they were being handed notices only when they showed up to begin serving their terms, not beforehand. That, in turn, meant their defense lawyers probably did not know about it. Andrew also got a copy of Moskowitz’s court order about the Dec. 3 hearing.

The Monitor had its story. Sheriff William King confirmed more facts after Andrew’s trip to Alfred. Justin Andrus of the Maine Commission for Indigent Legal Services offered valuable context, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine weighed in.

This is a routine example of “shoe leather” reporting that can be done no other way than traveling to the right place and speaking to employees in the know, in person.

It’s what local newspapers and other legacy media did on a routine basis for many decades, but do far less frequently today, due to their declining resources.

Andrew and the Monitor could not have done it without you, our donors, and the financial resources you provide.

Because of your support, an important story was told — one that other media outlets throughout Maine also ran in subsequent days. (The Monitor shares all of our stories with 140 media contacts the same day that we publish them, a practice that greatly increases our journalism’s reach and impact.)

Because of your support, Andrew was back on the York County beat this week, covering the hearing that we first reported would happen.

Because of your support, the truth was learned.

Eric Conrad

Eric Conrad

Eric Conrad worked as an editor and reporter, at news organizations from Florida to Maine, for 30 years, and joined The Maine Monitor in July 2021 as its Executive Director and Editor. He served as executive editor of daily newspapers and websites in Augusta and Waterville, and in Danbury, Conn. He previously was the managing editor, sports editor and city editor of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. Eric and the teams he’s led have won many national, regional and state awards. He is a founding member of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition and a past president of the New England Society of Newspaper Editors.


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