The Gazette lifted our jail food story


Of this we can now be absolutely sure: Someone at the Gazette reads the Independent.

The evidence is irrefutable and obvious — the daily's front page story in the March 7 edition is a direct ripoff of, though significantly less thorough than, the Indy's cover story published on Feb. 1, titled "Gruel and unusual."

Our cover story by Pam Zubeck delved into the chronic problems experienced by the El Paso County Sheriff's Office due to the new jail food contractor, Trinity Services Group of Oldsmar, Florida. Trinity took over the contract on Sept. 1, 2016, after Philadelphia-based Aramark Correctional Services LLC had served the county jail for 18 years.

The problems — foot shortages and questionable caloric content of meals — caused an explosion in inmate complaints and gave rise to a riot in the jail on Nov. 19. Nine inmates were charged in connection to the uprising.

A not very delicious inmate meal at the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • A not very delicious inmate meal at the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center.

The Indy explored the possible consequences of bad jail food, including the possibility of the county being sued and security issues. On the latter point, we found that unattended trustees (inmate workers) who staff the kitchen under supervision of a food contractor had apparently stolen implements that can be fashioned into weapons.

The Indy jail food package also looked at how jail food compares to school lunches, and examined studies that have suggested that balanced nutrition can affect behavior.

To document all that, the Indy's story relied on numerous public records, among them: inmate complaints, roughly 70 pages of internal sheriff's officer emails, health inspections, lawsuits, contracts, jail population data, interviews with inmates and inmates' relatives, nutritional standards, affidavits, menus, interviews with sheriff's personnel and the former contractor, commissary listings and other documents.

Some were obtained through the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA).

On Feb. 7, a week after the Indy's story ran, a Gazette reporter submitted a CORA request to the Sheriff's Office asking for records that clearly stemmed from the Indy's story. For example, the request asked for:
All emails sent by jail staff to Bureau Chief Mitch Lincoln, Commanders Rob King, or Commander Tom DeLuca between Sept. 1 and Feb. 1 containing the following key words: "food," "complaint," "portion," "risk," "concern," "Aramark" or "Trinity."
It's a safe bet the emails of those individuals wouldn't have been sought had those people not been quoted in the Indy's story.

Then, three days later, on Feb. 10, the Gazette reporter dropped all pretense in a second CORA, which was to replace the Feb. 7 version, and asked for "All emails sent to Pam Zubeck of the Colorado Springs Independent in response to her recent CORA request."

View other requests made in those CORA's here:  See related PDF CORA_requests.pdf
When the daily published its version, several aspects of the story were absent, such as the fact that the very contractor that inmates think doesn't provide adequate meals provides a commissary where inmates have to pay for food and other items; anecdotes of extreme weight loss as told by inmates and their families (the Gazette apparently didn't interview any inmates), and a wider context of jail food elsewhere in the United States that's led to litigation, riots and damage to correctional facilities.

In one respect, we shouldn't be surprised the daily newspaper might be interested in the story. It's a great story. That's why we researched and wrote it. But normally when a media outlet steals or borrows or copies or duplicates a story from another media outlet, they do the courtesy of saying something like "as first reported by."

It's the courtesy we make sure to give to other media, including the Gazette, in instances such as this story on Rosemont Reservoir.
A tale of two stories starts at the El Paso County CJC. - COURTESY EL PASO COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE
  • Courtesy El Paso County Sheriff's Office
  • A tale of two stories starts at the El Paso County CJC.

The Gazette, on the other hand, clearly used the Indy's reporting as a road map to produce a story that told readers less than ours had, without offering a new angle or additional reporting. They did so without crediting our paper, and in fact went so far as to credit their own records request for the story's background, as though it was their original work and not ours.

What one might find odd is that of all the pages of emails and inmate complaints provided by the Sheriff's Office, the daily decided to use the same ones quoted in the Indy's story. For example:

The Indy reported:
Complaining that a lunch consisted of one roll, one slice of bologna, a carrot, a fruity drink mix, and two Oreo-type cookies, an inmate wrote, "That does not constitute a meal. There are people in here who are 6'5", over 250 pounds."
The Gazette wrote:
In one complaint from October, an inmate describes his meal: a slice of bologna, a roll, a carrot, two cookies and juice.

"That does not constitute a meal," he wrote. "The above diet is why I weigh 132 (pounds) at 6 (feet) tall."
 The Indy reported, quoting an inmate's complaint form:
"Meals are a joke," one inmate wrote. "The portions are insufficient. Can someone please see that we get [fed] properly? We still are human beings, grown adults at that."
The Gazette wrote:
"Meals are a joke," a third inmate wrote Oct. 10. "I don't know who's supervising Trinity, but the portions are insufficient."
The Indy reported:
[Commander Rob] King lays the blame for many of Trinity's problems at the feet of Aramark, calling the transition between the two contractors "horrible" and "nonexistent."

"We had the same complaints with the previous vendor and from my perspective, there have been fewer complaints overall regarding Trinity once they were able to settle in," King wrote on Dec. 3 to staff. "It took a good month or two for them to work out their systems and processes because Aramark refused to participate in a peaceful transition after they lost the contract. It was a horrible start but I believe they have overcome the initial problems and are doing fine..."
The Gazette wrote:
In his Dec. 3 email, Jail Commander King said the jail had experienced some "growing pains and difficulty getting to full speed due to the less than pleasant transition" when Trinity took over, but service had since improved and the new vendor was "doing fine."
You get the idea. While there's an old adage that says "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," there's another quote that might be more appropriate: "You can copy all you want, you will always be one step behind."

We reached out Tuesday to Gazette editor Vince Bzdek seeking comment on the matter. Part of our correspondence conveyed:
... We are certainly fully aware and sensitive to the fact that oftentimes our reporters will be working on the same story, particularly with big breaking news — that we expect to compete with one another, so to speak. And we hardly expect attribution for a story that results from a press release or major event. But it is a different story when the reporting in question was investigative in nature and printed as an exclusive. 

Bzdek responded 10 minutes later with the following:
I agree with you that we should have added some sort of mention that this story was first reported by the Independent. It was an oversight by a new reporter who didn’t know our policy. We’re adding a line to the online version now. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. Our story is based on all our own reporting, some of which certainly repeats yours, and goes in different directions, but we certainly should have given you credit for the original reporting.

Though we appreciate the acknowledgement, apology and the addition of an attribution to the online version, we still take exception to the claim that the Gazette story "goes in different directions." We see no new broken ground in it whatsoever.

We were also disappointed that the Gazette did not choose to run a correction in today's paper.

Our concluding grievance is this: Our reporter took a great deal of time to conceptualize her initial records requests, not knowing exactly what she'd find. The meat of her work came from digging through the documents to hone in on details and shape her ultimate product. Investigative work such as this requires significant effort. The Gazette had the whole premise of their story laid out for them by ours, and simply duplicated our investigation, literally following in our paper's footsteps. The lack of credit given to our earlier work exceeds an oversight; it's an embarrassment.

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