What It Takes to Get the Story NPR's Daniel Zwerdling spent five months investigating allegations of abuse at two Homeland Security detention centers in New Jersey. Here, he comments on the challenges he faced in dealing with officials while reporting the story.
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What It Takes to Get the Story

The national media spent months earlier this year reporting how American guards abused detainees at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Meanwhile, there hasn't been much reporting about how guards have allegedly beat up immigrant detainees awaiting deportation and terrorized them with dogs — right here in America. That might be partly due to the fact that it's hard for reporters — and lawyers and family members, for that matter — to investigate the allegations.

In my 30 years reporting on government programs and policies, I've never encountered as much trouble getting information as I did while researching these stories on immigrant detainees.

Read Zwerdling's Story

Here's just one example: it took me almost three months — and dozens of phone calls and e-mails — to get access to the Passaic County Jail, just to interview one detainee who was attacked by a dog.

I started trying on June 2 to get permission to interview detainees in the Passaic County Jail. The deputy warden at the jail, Brian Bendl, told me I needed permission from a top official named Lt. Mark Stokes at the Department of Homeland Security office in New York. So I called Stokes. Repeatedly. Stokes never returned my calls. When I contacted Deputy Warden Bendl at Passaic, to let him know I was spinning my wheels, he wouldn't call me back, either.

Next, I tried a different strategy: I sent an e-mail to Kerry Gill, the official spokesman for the Homeland Security Department's division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Newark. I asked if he'd help me get into the jail. That seemed to make sense, since Gill works directly with the Passaic County Jail. Gill called me back, angrily demanding to know how I discovered his e-mail address, which he said was not supposed to be "public." It was easy — he was listed on a Web site as the department's media contact. Gill told me to call another official at Homeland Security to arrange a visit to the Passaic jail. When I asked if he'd give me his colleague's phone number, he started shouting. He wasn't anybody's "secretary," he said, adding that I should do my job as a reporter and find the phone number on my own.

By now, I'd wasted two weeks getting nowhere. It was time to go to the top: I called Russ Knocke, the director of public affairs at Immigration headquarters in Washington, D.C. He apologized for Gill's outburst, and cheerfully said he'd assign my request to one of his top staff members.

Over the next four weeks, I called Knocke's staff member and sent him e-mails at least nine times — yet I still hadn't received permission to interview a single detainee at Passaic. When I finally complained to Knocke on July 16 that his staff member wasn't responsive, Knocke told me he had reassigned my request to another staff member, Manny Van Pelt.

Ten more days went by. No word from Van Pelt. So I e-mailed him to ask, "What's going on?" Another four days went by. No word. I e-mailed Van Pelt again. Three more days went by. No word.

I'll spare you the frustrating details about the final flurry of phone calls and letters. On August 23, officials at the Passaic County jail finally let me through their doors to interview one — just one — detainee.

This one, simple request had taken almost three months to get results.

And that's the only thing that officials at Homeland Security and Passaic said I could do inside the jail. Officials refused to let me tour the jail, so I could see the detainees' living conditions first-hand. They prohibited me from interviewing any other detainees at random about how they were being treated.

And they refused to let me observe as a legal aid lawyer met with detainees to teach them about their legal rights. A Homeland Security spokesman explained: they didn't want me to distract the detainees at such an important meeting.