Extras from an interview with journalist Scott Thomas Anderson

No one boxes Scott Thomas Anderson into a word-count. I learned that long ago about the journalist and author, back when we both worked at a twice-weekly newspaper in the foothills. This week’s 15 Minutes feature provided another reminder that the loquacious Anderson has a lot to say about crime, reporting and how far he was willing to go to finish his second book. Here’s what ended up on the cutting-room floor from our discussion of, The Cutting Four-Piece: Crime and Tragedy in an Era of Prison Overcrowding.

Anderson will do just about anything for a story. Including abandoning his love to a gang of convicted murderers.

At least that’s the way Anderson’s wife recounts the couple’s tour of the Louisiana State Penitentiary’s notorious Angola Rodeo a couple years ago. On vacation with his then-girlfriend, Anderson arranged to squeeze in some field research for his new book, which came out a few weeks ago. He brought Stacy along, then proceeded to leave her at one of the pens with some of the convicted murderers who ride in the rodeo as he mounted a bull chute and chatted up some of the inmates. “I don’t think any of them had been that close to a woman in a long time,” he acknowledges. “But they were nice to her! She always leaves that part out.”

California’s big newspapers largely ignored the effects of realignment.

Anderson relied on crime coverage in smaller newspapers—like the Santa Clarita Signal, Calaveras Enterprise and even SN&R—to illustrate realignment’s march across the communities he wasn’t able to cover. He says all the reporters he reached out to were gracious and unselfish with their time. “The whole author’s note is what I discovered about my own industry, or who’s left in it,” Anderson says.

You can fight addiction at the Dollar Tree.

In my experience as a reporter, the addicts I’ve known over the years, they don’t seem to stand a fighting chance if they don’t get meaningful employment. Actually I’ll just say employment. I’ve known some who stayed clean for years just working at the Dollar Tree, if they have a manager that tells them, ‘You’re a value to this team.’ … There’s something about the self-esteem component of employment that helps addicts get through all the stressors that can be triggers for relapse.”

Anderson learned as much from ex-convicts as he did cops.

Shadow People [Anderson’s first book] was told entirely from the perspective of cops, prosecutors and victims’ advocates. At the very end of the book, there’s a vignette from an addict’s perspective. … In the moment, that seemed like the best way to get all these gritty, real stories that I could verify. But looking back, it left people with a lot of unanswered questions. One of the big challenges that was interesting for The Cutting Four-Piece was: Could I spend an equal amount of time with cops on night patrols and then spend an equal amount of time with guys coming out of prison? … [Y]ou got to find someone that you think will be honest with you, that isn’t telling you what you want to hear. … And it’s difficult to find sources that you trust. That you trust aren’t just trying to get into the book to make themselves look good.”

Cops are as alarmed by the private prison industry as we are–when they hear about it.

It’s a huge indictment of our own industry and journalism in general that a lot of the smartest cops I know really weren’t aware of that story. Many of them weren’t even aware that we’re housing 7,000 inmates with the companies that have been found guilty of 'crimes against humanity,' to use the words of a federal judge in another state. A lot of cops here in California didn’t even have an awareness that that was happening. And they don’t like it. For the same reasons they go to work every day and put a badge on and try to help victims of crime, suddenly you can convince them that some of the people they arrest are victims.”

Journalists are outnumbered.

“A part-time reporter who works for me at the [Roseville] Press-Tribune wrote a simple, 750-word story about one of the private prison contracts, with numbers provided by the [California] Department of Corrections [and Rehabilitation]. I received somewhere in the ballpark of 4,000 to 4,500 words in email messages from various PIOs [public information officers, a.k.a. spokespersons] at Corrections with suggestions on how to change the story after it was already published, never once disputing any factual findings in it, but trying to control the narrative of that story. … And they would have kept emailing me all day if I hadn’t finally told them I’m going to publish this correspondence if it keeps going on. That’s what stopped it. But that, alone, shows you the state we’re in in California, where the Department of Corrections has more PIOs than most newspapers have reporters. That tells you a lot. It’s Orwellian, it’s disturbing.”

Anderson has even more to say about the meager state of his industry.

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