Q&A: New Yorker’s Sarah Stillman on Oklahoma women in prison and reporting amid trauma

New Yorker staff writer Sarah Stillman. Photo via MacArthur Foundation.

In four decades, the number of women incarcerated in state and local prisons in the US has increased by over 800 percent. Most women are in for low-level, nonviolent offenses, and often they have not been convicted of a crime: They’re just too poor to post bail.

“Nowhere is this problem starker than in Oklahoma, which has the highest rate of women’s incarceration in the nation,” writes Sarah Stillman in this week’s New Yorker. “Eighty-five percent of these women are mothers.” And studies show the children of incarcerated women are significantly more likely to develop health problems, use drugs, drop out of school, and one day become incarcerated themselves.

Stillman’s piece, “America’s Other Family-Separation Crisis,” represents two years of reporting and offers a shocking look at the criminal justice system in Oklahoma. Readers meet women whose harsh sentences sent them spiraling into poverty; a woman imprisoned for a parole violation following a crime she did not commit; and one mother fleeing domestic violence who receives a longer sentence than her abuser for failing to protect her child from him. The story further profiles an advocacy organization, Still She Rises, dedicated to helping women and reversing Oklahoma’s over-incarceration trend.

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Stillman, 34, has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2013, reporting domestically and abroad on diverse social and criminal justice issues. A Washington, DC native, she additionally directs the Global Migration Project at Columbia Journalism School. In 2016, she was named a MacArthur Fellow.

CJR spoke with Stillman about her recent work, strategies for reporting on sources amid tragedy and trauma, and the importance of stories which focus on individual experiences at a time when headlines are dominated by the Trump presidency. The interview has been edited.

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Your work, often focusing on these mega-themes of criminal justice, gender, and immigration, takes a deeply personal approach.

I’ve always been interested in how longform journalism can connect individual stories of trauma with systemic and structural injustices, and immigration and criminal justice system are two realms where these intersections are crucial. For instance, a recent story I did for The New Yorker revolved around a woman who was a victim of domestic violence living undocumented in Texas. She was deported and then murdered after her deportation, despite having pled with Border Patrol agents that this was exactly what would happen to her. The story has an emotional power of its own, of course, but it felt much more powerful in the context of data, compiled over two years with the help students at Columbia Journalism School, which showed this had happened to hundreds, if not thousands, of undocumented immigrants who similarly sought sanctuary.

 

Another theme that emerges in some of your stories is family, specifically motherhood. How has zooming in on family dynamics shaped how you present the social issues in your stories?

One of the Global Migration Project’s mandates is to think about how gender intersects with the big themes of immigration and refugee issues. One of the things that stood out to me in immigration coverage was how often women’s stories don’t make it into the public sphere. More recently, certainly with the family separation crisis, I think people are beginning to really connect to that pain through the stories of families.

I really love the work of Bruce Western, a sociologist at Columbia who studies incarceration. He says that what cultivates empathy is having the chance to see the context for someone’s decision making, and to see that person in acts of creativity or acts of love, not just in the context of crime or victimization. Through seeing people as individuals capable of love, creativity, and resilience, we really come to recognize the depths of the harm we’ve done.

 

Your story about the over-incarceration in Oklahoma touches on many complex issues beyond the central focus of the story, including poverty, mental health, domestic violence, and substance abuse. After all of these issues emerge in your reporting, how do you organize your thoughts and material when it comes to finally telling the story?

I have this thing I call the “Rule of Five.” Basically, after I’ve immersed myself in a story for months, after I’ve accumulated a huge amount in my notebook and after I have assembled all the relevant data, I pore over it and then put it aside for a minute. I say, “What are the five things that absolutely have to be in this piece, and how do I make all of those coalesce into a narrative?”

Every person I introduced in the Oklahoma piece could have made for their own 10,000 word profile. And it always feels incredibly reductive—not to be melodramatic, but almost like violence—to collapse someone’s rich, complex life to a matter of paragraphs. At the same time, it’s valuable when you can connect the dots between an individual’s experiences and the broader array of public policies that shaped that person’s situation.

 

There are many striking details in the story about arbitrary sentences, and the residual impacts they have on families even after the women they’ve served their time. Is there anything that really stuck with you that didn’t make your final cut?

Absolutely. I was really surprised to see how common it was for women who had actually been with a violent spouse or boyfriend who harmed her child and was then criminally prosecuted herself for failing to protect the child. I believe the district attorney who we meet in the story was doing the best he could, within his moral framework, to enact what he sees as justice, but we have so much empirical information at this point on the realities of domestic violence survivors, why they struggle to leave these relationships, and what does and doesn’t help them. Given that research, I want to keep learning about and documenting this.

 

It’s valuable when you can connect the dots between an individual’s experiences and the broader array of public policies that shaped that person’s situation

 

Was it your sense over the course of reporting this story that this issue was gaining any traction with the public in Oklahoma? Did advocates have a sense of momentum?

Several years ago, there was a huge amount of momentum accumulating, as well as increasing bipartisan recognition that mass incarceration is incredibly costly, not just from a fiscal perspective but also from a moral perspective in terms of damage done to families and communities. There was a moment, and to an extent there continues to be a moment, in which journalism about these issues was really flourishing, especially with outlets like The Marshall Project, and there was a greater degree of public interest and awareness of ways in which our approach to criminal justice has failed us. But with the Trump administration, so much is happening in the news cycle that stories about these more quotidian injustices often get drowned out.

 

There’s a question when it comes to stories like this: Do we do them because the stories deserve telling in their own right, or with specific hopes of impacting change? When you’re reporting, are you thinking about the tangible impacts your reporting might have?

I’m not really interested in pursuing “bad apple” stories, which try to isolate and shine a light on one alleged bad actor or organization. It’s actually rare for there to be just one sociopathic, mean person behind a story. Humans are always operating within social constructs. Almost always, when you peel back the layers, you find a set of perverse incentive structures.

I did a story, for instance, on civil asset forfeiture, which is when people have property taken from them without due process. We had seen stories in the past about individual cops or police officers behind unlawful seizures, but when you look more deeply, you find that these police offices are underfunded or have actually been defunded by legislatures, putting them in a position where they need to search everywhere they can to fill their budget. Similarly, in Oklahoma, I think the DA would agree he doesn’t want to charge people huge fees and fines, especially when they are indigent within the criminal justice system. But when you pan back, you find that the legislature defunded the courts, and the DA was in a position where he had to collect these irrational fees and fines. I’m drawn towards looking at the deeper reasons behind these point-by-point injustices.

A lot of your stories take a patient approach. It seems like you’re often with the story before the story even emerges. How and when do you decide to follow a lead, and then how do your stories take shape in the coming months or years?

Some of it is just trusting my visceral instincts and then also trusting what develops on the ground. My coverage of asylum seekers is a good example, I think. I’d been interested for a long time in the realities of people from the Northern Triangle of Central America—El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—and in figuring out what they face once they come to this country, or what happens to them post-deportation. Journalistic alarm bells go off for me anytime I hear a hypothetical. In that case, I heard this hypothetical coming out of DC that we might be deporting people to their deaths. I wondered, why are we only hearing about this conjecturally, and what would it look like to put faces and names to that claim? And then I just embarked on the process of finding individual stories to see if I could prove it.

As I was working on that story, asylum seekers started to mention stuff about families being separated, before we knew this was an official policy. The media for the most part ignored this until coverage erupted this summer. It was on every front page for a certain period of time, and then everything dissipated and everyone moved on to covering the next trendy issue. One thing I’ve learned from Bruce Shapiro at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma is to think about the “act two stories,” to ask what happens after the media leaves.

 

Your piece in October on family separation at the border came out months after national focus had shifted away from the issue, and after Trump had issued an order allegedly ending the practice in June. Yet, as the piece makes clear, families are still being separated, and many children remain in US government custody. As a reporter, is it a challenge to continue devoting resources and time to issues when public attention has moved on?

Sometimes we’re sold a false tale about what readers want. Readers really do care about substantive issues and they really do want to hear about individuals’ experiences, if they’re told in a way that’s compelling. So I think Helen, the five-year-old in my piece who was separated from her grandmother in July and then made by officials to sign paperwork giving up her right to a hearing before a judge, is a good example. How do we illustrate that this thing is still happening to potentially tons of families? That felt like a black box on its own. It would have been hard to characterize all the kids who are in the shelter system who have been misclassified as unaccompanied minors or who were separated and rendered unaccompanied by the government’s actions. It helped to have one individual who people could attune to: the smart, thoughtful five-year-old, instead of data.  

 

With so many irons in the fire, with longterm stories you’re reporting on simultaneously unfolding all over the country, how do you judge when you’re ready to start writing?

Well, in some cases, it’s really simple: I have a deadline from my editor. But in other cases it’s more complicated, in part because I never really consider a story finished — even sometimes when it’s in the magazine. I often find springboards to new stories afterwards. The first story I did for The New Yorker was about labor and human trafficking on US military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. I met a ton of people from countries like India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Sierra Leone, who had been trafficked to do these difficult and dangerous jobs. After that piece came out, I kept in touch with a lot of the workers over Facebook, and they would pass along stories from different parts of the world as they became politically relevant. One of the workers in Iraq, for example, eventually returned to Freetown, Sierra Leone, and became a source when I was covering the Ebola epidemic.

 

Do you commonly stay in touch with sources after you’re done?

It’s been a real gift in my life to have gotten to know so many different people through this work. People from many walks of life have remained good sources, and in some cases, good friends. I’ve had to remain mindful about observing journalistic boundaries, though. It’s important to remember that it’s not my job to be someone’s therapist or direct advocate. In the case of trauma, in particular, it can feel sometimes cannibalistic to take the pain someone has faced, weave it into story, and then just move on. So in some cases it’s meaningful for me to keep up those relationships, but I have to maintain clarity that I’m there as a journalist first. I have to retain the capacity for fairness and gather as many perspectives as I can.

 

You were reporting on many of these issues well before Trump came to the White House. How has his presidency shaped your view on the importance of gender and immigration coverage?

It’s been interesting for me to see how politicized people’s experience of critical news issues can be, insofar as there are trends that were happening before Trump, such as family detention, but it was once really hard to interest readers in those issues. At the very least, now, there’s a growing understanding that we need to pay attention to the politics of immigration and the realities of how post-deportation stories unfold. The other change is the speed with which these stories unfold. In a previous moment, I might have gathered an array of facts and put a story out over a period of months. In the case of Helen, though, I felt that turning the story around immediately was not just worthwhile but morally imperative. Sometimes as a journalist the luxury of time actually isn’t appropriate, and. the relevant and ethical thing to do is to move quickly.

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Andrew McCormick is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewMcCormck.