Talking to Journalist Matt Stroud about The Prison Complex

Matt Stroud is a journalist who runs the blog The Prison Complex, formerly at Forbes, now at In These Times. We traded some emails about his work.

Logan Sachon: Tell me about the Prison Complex — how you ended up doing it at Forbes, why you moved it to In These Times.

Matt Stroud: Long story short, I graduated from a master’s degree program at the end of last year that involved a lot of interaction with Pennsylvania’s state prison system. When that was over, I decided to find somewhere to blog about all the stuff I’d begun following with regard to prison issues. Forbes will apparently give a blog to anyone who asks for one, so I tried that. And it worked out reasonably well. But the editors there were really only interested in prison issues as they relate to government spending (because it’s Forbes, after all). My interests are a little broader than that. I’m a longtime fan of In These Times and I have friends in Chicago, so I asked a couple editors if they’d be interested in letting me blog there. To my surprise, they said ok.

LS: Are you able to have the blog be your full-time work?

MS: Ha ha ha, no. I get $200 per month for The Prison Complex — which is honestly more than I expected I’d get. I understand that there’s no money to be made in selling ads alongside prison journalism, so I consider myself lucky to be paid at all.

LS: What other kinds of work have you done?

MS: I worked as a graveyard shift security guard through undergrad, then started working as a daily newspaper copy editor for a year or so until 2006. Since then, I’ve been doing whatever I can to stay in journalism. I’ve run a couple magazines and worked for a few alternative newsweeklies. For the last five years or so I’ve been able to make a living as a freelance journalist — selling stories piecemeal to editors considerate enough to take my work. My current day job, if you can call it that, is as a contract reporter for the excellent technology and science website The Verge, where I write mostly about legal issues related to tech policy. No health benefits in that gig, but I do get a steady paycheck and the freedom to work from home and write The Prison Complex in my spare time.

LS: Graveyard shift security guard — tell me about that gig. Was it ‘research’ — how did you end up there. What was it like?

MS: Not research. I just needed a job. I hated working retail, I’m the last person you want tending bar, and I’m not great with tools or electronics. So I learned fairly early that security — and we’re talking security without a gun; rent-a-cop — was a great way to get paid a fairly decent wage without having to do much of anything at all. As an unarmed guard, there are typically no educational or physical requirements and the job involved sitting in a specific spot and occasionally walking around. It’s perfect for a college student. It left me with plenty of time to get classwork done and to read for leisure while getting paid. I worked (“worked”) for a company called Firm Security, which provided guards such as myself for the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium. That’s where I did most of my sitting and walking — inside a booth near the front entrance of the park. Really, it had nothing to do with prisons or journalism; it was just a way to earn money. I learned that wild, caged animals are calmest at night, when they’re alone, and when thousands of kids aren’t pounding on the plexiglass that surrounds their manmade “environment.”

LS: How did you get in interested in writing about prison?

MS: You know the cliche about how everyone in prison is innocent? Well, if a prisoner is serious about having someone re-investigate their case post-conviction, they send letters explaining their alleged wrongful conviction to their local Innocence Project. If their local Innocence Project thinks the claim is legit, they’ll investigate, and then maybe even bring the case back into court.

While getting my master’s degree in journalism, I worked for the Innocence Project in Pittsburgh, which was run out of Point Park University’s journalism program by one of the best investigative reporters in the country, Bill Moushey. (The university killed its Innocence Project last year — perhaps because there’s no money to be made in prison journalism.)

I took that job at Point Park because it allowed me to get my degree on scholarship with a meager stipend. But I soon became obsessed by the work. Yes, there were legitimate wrongful convictions and those were fascinating and terrifying and infuriating all at once. But while exchanging letters with prisoners and visiting them behind bars, you begin to realize how backward and weird and dysfunctional the prison system itself is. “Kafkaesque” doesn’t even begin to describe it. The “no touching” gag from Arrested Development, for example, is a real thing. And rules are followed to an absurd level; paper forms are a part of every transaction, no matter how meaningless. And that’s not to mention the inconsistent sentencing rules, and the absurd racial imbalance, and the fact that it seems easier to bring a gun into a school than a pen into a correctional facility. So I followed prison issues while getting my degree and wrote for City Paper in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh about whatever Pennsylvania state prison issues I could turn into news stories. From there, I had to improvise to continue writing about a topic that obviously fascinates me to this day.

LS: Is going to prison a fear for you? I’m wondering if your work has made you even more wary of cop lights behind you.

MS: The U.S. criminal justice system is deeply biased — perhaps by necessity, but probably not — against those who are poor and living in poor communities. This results in the prison racial imbalance that I mentioned above, and the fact that Caucasian, relatively responsible people such as myself — who live in middle class suburban communities overseen by police officers who really only need to patrol the local taverns after 2 a.m. — have little to worry about when it comes to ending up behind bars. So, no, I’m not afraid of going to prison. But I am afraid that if the U.S. justice system doesn’t seriously address its bias — and doesn’t address the unnecessarily large number of people we incarcerate — we’re all going to feel more and more like we’re in prison every day. And there are legitimate reasons to fear that.

LS: Can you tell me about the first time you visited someone in prison?

It was for this story:

Stacey Torrance, the man at the center of that story, is a perfect example of the inexplicable sentencing policies I referenced earlier. When Torrance was 14, an older acquaintance asked him to serve as a lookout for a robbery. He did it, but didn’t participate in the robbery itself and didn’t find out until much later that the people carrying out the robbery — who were much older than 14 — had killed the person they robbed. Because of that, under Pennsylvania law, this 14-year-old was sentenced to a mandatory sentence of life without parole. He’s still behind bars; the crime occurred in 1988.

Anyway, Torrance is in a prison called SCI Chester — the State Correctional Institution at Chester, Pa., a few miles outside Philadelphia. It’s a fairly new prison, designed for well-behaved prisoners and prisoners with substance abuse problems. It sits next to a giant Harrah’s casino. I have notes from the visit, but I’m not sure how interesting they’d be to you. I remember, aside from being enthralled by his personal story, I was fascinated by how much hope he had — hope that the internet would be as cool as everyone had told him it was, hope that he’d be able to start the electronics business he had wanted to start for years, hope that he’d someday be able to skydive when he got out. And this was despite having a mandatory life sentence assigned to his identity. This — the idea of honest, true, irony-free hope — is something that gets mentioned in earnest movies and television shows about prison, but it’s really difficult to understand what it looks like unless you see that excitement in someone else’s eyes when they talk about something as simple as being able to walk where they want to walk and wear what they want to wear and eat at whatever real restaurant they want to eat at. That’s always stuck with me about that first visit. And I still get letters from Torrance every now and then — him just saying hi, basically — that seem to embody that same spirit of promise, of longing for a wonderful world as it may exist beyond the walls of a prison. That’s how I read those letters anyway. Though maybe that’s just me wanting to find hope where there may be none. It’s easy to be pessimistic.

LS: Do you have friends and sources in prison? Can you talk about what it’s like to have a relationship with someone inside?

MS: I have sources in prison — some prison employees, some prisoners. I’m hesitant to call any of them friends, though I do have a few acquaintances who established their status in prison (so to speak) after we became friends.

In general, I’ll say it’s difficult to develop “inside” friendships when you’re outside prison. That’s for obvious reasons such as literal access, but it’s also because I’m a journalist; when I talk with people for journalistic reasons, inside or outside prison, it’s in context of me potentially writing about their life. As with sources who have nothing to do with prisons, it’s difficult to say, “I’m going to write honestly about your situation, whether it bothers you or not,” and still have the kind of openness and trust that one might expect from a friendship. Which is why some of my best sources — inside and outside prison — have never been named or quoted by me.

There’s also the fact that I’ve never served time in a prison, I’ve never worked in a prison, and I’m not inside a prison right now. So it’s difficult for me to empathize with prisoners or prison workers — or even to feign empathy. That’s always evident during visitations and letter exchanges and even rounds of beer with COs; I may be sympathetic, but I’ve not been where they’ve been. It’s a lot like talking to someone who’s been to war, or someone who’s been through any uniquely trying circumstance. At some point, the conversation will veer toward experiences, and there’s a chasm between what they’ve gone through and what I haven’t.

LS: What do TV and movies get right (you mentioned no touching) and what do they get wrong? What would surprise me about the system?

MS: Well, a main plot point in Orange Is The New Black is about how Piper’s husband is writing about her experiences without knowing anything about what it’s truly like to be behind bars. That seems right. Which is why I try to focus my reporting on prison policy, spending, and cases that can be investigated from outside prison, instead of what goes on in prison chow halls or whatever.

In other words: I can guess about what might surprise you and what movies and TV get right and wrong, but that’s probably more of a question for someone who’s actually been incarcerated or employed at a prison. Which, now that I mention it, sounds like a pretty good idea for a blog post on The Prison Complex.

Matt Stroud lives in Pittsburgh. Photo by miss_millions

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