Editorial: Reporting difficult situations

Apr. 21, 2014 @ 11:13 PM

If you work in a newsroom for any length of time you can see them coming from a mile away.

A handwritten envelope, stamped with: “(Facility name) has neither inspected or censored and is not responsible for content.”

The arguments held within often decry the writer’s innocence or ask that we, the newspaper, seek justice for the inadequacies of the treatment provided in the aforementioned facility.

Mail from those serving time — either in our local jail or a state- or federally run prison — often finds its way to the desk of a journalist.

The letters are usually heartbreaking, detailing tough living conditions, an unfair trial or the situation that railroaded an inmate into the current situation.

The trouble is, it’s also just one side of the story.

Prisons and jails aren’t meant to be comfortable. They are a part of the criminal justice system for a reason — they are meant as a form of punishment, both to keep criminal behaviors off the street and to dissuade prisoners from committing future violations.

In situations where there are victims, their plight must be taken into account. They don’t want to see the perpetrator of their suffering living in comfort on the taxpayers’ dime.

Still, a modicum of human decency must be maintained for prisoners. It’s a classic Catch-22.

A rash of East Tennessee prison deaths in the past few years, however, has raised a number of questions — especially about the treatment of those in custody.

Since January, three inmates have died in the Jefferson County Jail, including a Kodak man last week. That man’s sister then died in our own jail over the weekend after an apparent hanging.

It’s a tough situation for all involved, including the family of the deceased and the Sevier County Sheriff’s Department.

But when someone dies in a publicly run facility such as the case here, it’s news; and it’s something we’re charged with investigating, even it the case appears to be cut and dry.