Five months after it came out, I finally got to reading Sarah Stillman's New Yorker piece "Get Out of Jail, Inc." depicting the worst effects of private companies contracted for 'alternatives-to-incarceration' services. The ills of the private prison industry have been well told: the mistreatment of inmates, the reliance on over-aggressive drug and immigration laws, the isolation of jailing an offender far from home. In the long article (over 10,000 words), Stillman details how prisons aren't the only privatized section of the criminal justice system, nor the only privatized section with alarming problems. Embedding a profit motive into probation services, halfway homes, and work-release programs has led to shocking offender mistreatment and corruption.
The story is an example of an adage I've heard many times here at Columbia: good writing is about good reporting. Report the story well, the advice goes, and you'll have so much to say about a subject – so much great raw material – that the writing process is really a matter of distilling, ordering, and clarifying.
Stillman's piece is testament to that. Through its 10,000 words, the reader encounters numerous victims of a system out of control. Her reporting focused on abuses in Alabama and Oklahoma, with mention of precedent (legal and otherwise) in a few other southern and western states. Her main subject, Harriet Cleveland, appears throughout the story. Mrs. Cleveland's story shows the excesses of a for-profit criminal justice industry that recognized that the incarceration market had plateaued and strategically shifted to incarceration alternatives. The only offenses by the Montgomery, Alabama, grandmother were traffic fines, but what might have been simple tickets for person of different means were her entry points to a profit-driven cycle of service fees, jail time, and lost jobs.
The piece, even considering its length, is full of moving episodes. In what I think may be the most moving use of a semicolon ever, Stillman describes a scene from Harriet Cleveland's time imprisoned for traffic fines:
"In jail, she helped a woman give birth on the floor of the cell, laying down a towel and massaging her as other women screamed for medical help. None arrived; the baby was stillborn."
That scene, and the restraint of such simple language, is excellent writing. That such direct words can be so arresting is evidence of how a story need only be reported and told to become good writing. Details throughout Stillman's piece stand out. A fight ring encouraged by an Oklahoma halfway-house as "informal discipline" ensured that the company wouldn't lose its walking revenue sources (each offender was “a big six-foot pile of money in a bed,” according to a former case manager for the house's firm). Down the road in Tulsa, the same company tolerated an abusive work-release manager at a Quiznos. Reported by a female employee that "he busted her lip and tore out her earring while demanding sexual favors," those work-release program's security chief laughed it off.
Despite these details, and despite the broader arc that Stillman draws with America's history of debt and incarceration, I found myself wanting more storytelling. Reporting means good writing, but good writing (and I say this with admiration) doesn't necessarily mean great writing. The narrative of the piece as a single structure got a bit lost through all the examples and forms of misdeed in the prison alternatives industry. The facts are compelling – truly, disturbingly compelling – but specificity is the soul of narrative. It's a strange complaint to ask for more out of a tightly constructed 10,000-word article, but I think the reader needed a stronger imprint of detail amidst the enraging facts. So much was depending, but there weren't enough red wheelbarrows and white chickens.
The end of the piece returns to Harriett Cleveland recalling a children's book whose plot paralleled her struggle. In Stone Fox, a "reed-thin" Wyoming farmboy joins a dog-sled race to win the money needed to save his grandfather's potato farm from a "shadowy 'tax man'" who warns: “‘If you don’t pay, we have our ways,’ the man said, derringer on his hip. ‘And it’s all legal. All fair and legal.’” The parallel to Cleveland's predicament is clear, but it's not the tax man that brings her to tears; it's the loyal dog whose heart gives out pulling the boy's sled in the race.
The ending buttons the piece well. The storybook's plot addresses an age-old fable at the heart of Stillman's for-profit criminal justice story and it deepens the reader's empathy for Cleveland. She's identified logically with the farmboy, but emotionally with the sled dog struggling with everything it's got.
I love Stillman's piece and consider her one of the best working journalists today. Her reporting on the criminal justice system, in particular the edges of it that stretch beyond regulatory oversight, is authoritative and richly considered . "The Throwaways," her 2012 New Yorker piece on the "largely unregulated, and sometimes fatal" use of confidential informants is essential reading. Stillman's writing is longform not because she has a lot to say, but because there simply is a lot to say.
That said, I think the Stone Fox anecdote illustrates where her writing could benefit from a greater structure of image and detail. To me, a bookend is better than a button. Instead of using the children's book to do two things at once, Stillman could have separated the tasks to the beginning and end of her piece. The plot could parallel Cleveland's situation at the outset and then her identification with the dying sled dog could close the piece.
Bookending is a simplistic tool, an over-simplistic one if done inelegantly, but a powerful one if done well. Not only does it return the reader to a familiar landscape of metaphor, it underlines a sense of journey in the writing. The beginning would be a simple fable: farmboy against tax man, as grandmother against profiteer. Then the ending would offer a return with a complication. Cleveland isn't actually a "fight-the-man type," as Stillman puts it, and even empathizes with the probation firm that's bankrupted and incarcerated her. She's not the farmboy; she's the loyal sleddog. She's not fighting the tax man; she's fighting the elements and pushing forward only out of love and loyalty. Granted, it's a simplification, but my broad point here is that Stillman, and other excellent longform writers like her, could benefit from building narrative more as a journey of images than a cataloguing of facts. (Quoting the imagist poet William Carlos Williams earlier must now seem, as with any choice in writing, clunkingly obvious in intention.)
Good writing requires good reporting, but good writing is fundamentally built of image while good reporting is built of fact. Images themselves are of course facts though. The chickens are white, the wheelbarrow is red. I only ask that journalists remember the importance of detailed imagery when moving from the exploratory process of reporting to the dilutive process of writing.
A week ago, the writer Michael Shapiro visited my Politics and Policy class at Columbia Journalism School. He recounted the history of longform journalism: its mid-century rise, style-infatuated decline, and now recent resurgence. The first true longform piece of narrative journalism, in his telling, was Cornelius Ryan's The Longest Day, an exhaustively reported 1959 book that retold the Normandy invasion in rich detail.
Adapted into an Academy Award-winning John Wayne movie only a few years later, the story succeeded not because it told a dramatic story. Normandy was almost two decades past at that point and as large in the American consciousness as any one episode of the twentieth century. It succeeded, according to Shapiro, because of its reported detail. Erwin Rommel, commander of the German defense, was back home in Bavaria giving his wife a birthday present when the invasion took place. He had bought her grey suede shoes, size five-and-a-half. It's the shoes, not the geopolitics of war, that sell the narrative.