My first trip to jail — no, not as an inmate

The correctional officer tells me to put my purse in one of the lockers.

It’s the last place I want to leave my new Kate Spade.

I’m not normally that boujee, but I am here.

I look at him unsure, put my bag inside and close the blue door.

He hands me the key and I tug at the locker door to make sure it’s locked.

“It’s locked,” he said in a don’t-worry-about-it tone.

I put the tiny key in my skirt pocket.

And then I take a seat outside of the huge and very secured jail door.

No — I haven’t been arrested.

Yes — I’m on the job and at a bond hearing, my first one in Horry County.

I’m anxious as I wait to go behind the four — yes four — thick doors and into the room where inmates wait to see if they’ll be released.

People gather in the waiting area to watch the hearings on television screens.

I’m the only one they’ll let back.

The officer says it’s time.

My heart starts to pound.

He takes me through three of the doors, and each one slams hard behind us. He swipes a key card or pushes a button at each door to unlock them.

I’m on my own to get to the fourth door.

I walk in my hot pink mules on the concrete floor to the last door. And block walls are on each side of me.

I look through the sliver of a window and see inmates right there — they are feet away, and I have to walk right by them.

Of course they are regular people who have been suspected of doing bad things. And I’m used to seeing mugshots and hearing about those bad things each day — not much phases me anymore.

But from the movies and gossip and the society I’ve grown up in, criminals or alleged criminals always seem to have been separate from the outside world, not just physically.

It’ still an odd feeling to be in the same room.

I knock.

Nobody comes to the door and a brief panic starts because I’m locked in a hallway I can’t get out of either way I turn.

Then I bang on the thick door — it takes a lot to make a noise through these.

All the inmates sitting on the rows of benches turn to look. Another officer lets me in.

He opens the door and I walk through, trying not to make eye contact with anyone.

I hear giggles from the inmates as I walk through and whispers.

I’m so uncomfortable. And I’m the only person from the news media there, so all eyes are on me as I walk in.

And what’s even scarier is they aren’t handcuffed and have free reign around the court room, though many are seated. Oh, and that there’s like only two officers in the room.

But most of the inmates listen well to the officers’ instructions.

I’m told where to sit — on a cream-colored plastic chair beside the pew-like bench the women inmates are sitting on. The men are in a glassed off area where the door is I walked through.

The woman are calm, motionless. The men — loud and joking around.

I just watch.

The first person is up.

He gets a bond of about $100. And when it’s time for him to go back, he scoffs at the officers, says, “Take me to jail.”

He bucks his chest at an officer.

And a short scuffle starts.

I’m already freaking out that nobody in the room is wearing handcuffs or has shackles on their feet.

And then I remember — there are four bolted-tight doors between me and the free world.

I try not to panic.

Then it’s time for the two guys I’m there for to stand in front of the judge, who is sitting behind a glass wall.

The judge denies bond for both of them.

And they clearly aren’t happy, don’t understand.

The two men walk through one bolted door.

I stand up to go toward that same bolted door to the hallway that leads me to three more bolted doors.

But the guard won’t let me in the hallway just yet.

The two men are arguing with an officer, and he says he doesn’t want me in the hall with them.

So instead, I’m standing in the glass room with more than half a dozen inmates. And anxiety rushes to my head.

I need out.

He finally walks me down the hall to the three doors I’ll have to walk through to get out.

And I’m free.

I grab my purse out of the locker and rush to my car.
There’s no time to address my anxiety.

I have a story to get online.

Journalists are superheroes — everyone should know it.

I feel speechless. But there are things that need to be said.

Two editors and I sit in chairs rolled close so we can talk about a story I’m so excited to run.

We just figured out one more piece to add to the puzzle.

And then something hits home. A notification comes in.

My executive editor says it first — people have been shot at a newspaper building.

We immediately turn to the flatscreen televisions that line the wall of the newsroom.

I put my hand over my mouth, I don’t even gasp.

I know my face has to be white.

I get chills and tears fill my eyes.

News just broke — we don’t know why this happened or who did this yet.

Hours later there were answers — answers we got through hard-working journalists.

Five people dead.

Rob Hiaasen.

Gerald Fischman.

John McNamara.

Wendi Winters.

Rebecca Smith.

The Capital Gazette reported the suspect had a long-standing grudge against the newspaper. He had previously — and unsuccessfully — sued the paper for defamation.

Reporters at The Capital worked together and put out a paper the next day. I praise that hard work that was done in the midst of all of the emotions they must have been feeling.

I absolutely lose it when I get home from work while I watch the press conference.

Tears pour down my face — and it won’t be the first time tears pour after this.

Each time I see a tweet or story, I cry. And things don’t usually impact me like this. I haven’t had too much tragedy in my life. Normally one good cry and I’m over it.

But this — no.

This is insane.

Let me tell you who we are

I’m tired of people misunderstanding journalism.

We are not fake.

We do not make up lies.

We should NOT be the enemy of the people.

Those who aren’t journalists just don’t get how hard it is for us sometimes.

We get cussed out. We are told to our faces that we are not liked. We get hate mail, phone calls. We get trolled on social media. We get asked why we wrote that story.

We constantly argue with public officials who don’t want to tell us stuff — people whose salaries are PAID BY THE TAXPAYERS.

Our Carolinas regional editor Robyn Tomlin said it best in a column Friday: “I, myself, have had my tires slashed, my car keyed and have been called every name in the book. Even so, I’ve never truly felt unsafe. Unsettled maybe, but not unsafe. Until this week.”

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Don’t. Be. Mad. We. Shed. Light.

It’s simple — if we didn’t report, who would?

We tell the truth. Again, it’s simple — if we didn’t, we’d likely have a lawsuit against us for libel.

We uncover and report stories about all kinds of things — sex crimes against children that aren’t investigated properly, bacteria levels in the ocean, features on military veterans, armed robberies, murders, eating disorders.

It’s our job. We get paid to do it.

We get paid to take time to dig into things that other people may not have time for or necessarily know how to navigate and research.

I was trained to search public documents and find things.

I was trained to write fair and ethically and give every possible person a story involves the chance to tell his or her side. And because we do that DOES NOT mean we are putting our own personal opinion into a story.

Listen, I’ve got plenty of opinions. Plenty. But I choose to stay neutral — it’s a part of the career.

I don’t talk about my political views publicly. I just don’t.

I’m not an activist trying to push one side or the other. I’m simply presenting things that I’ve been told, I’ve uncovered, I’ve researched.

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The issue is people are ignorant to what we do and why we do what we do.

The issue is that we have a government that is trying to turn people away from and to hate the news media.

The issue is we are misunderstood for the reasons we push people for information.

We are your friends. We are not your enemy.

What we do matters. I’d hate to see what this world would look like without us journalists.

This is why I do it:

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And this:

Why I do it 2

Oh, and this:

I can’t forget this:

And I’ll sure as hell will never forget this:

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Oh, how thankful I am for all the mean girls

We rush into the nastiest bathroom at Waccamaw High School.

I’m furious because they laughed at me. The means girls — my friend group — they laughed as I stood up to them for talking about my friend behind her back.

The whole incident is a blur. I hope it’ll come back to me later.

I’m past the point of tears. But my friend — still crying.

A teacher follows us into the bathroom because we stormed off from the mean girls’ table, visibly upset.

I tell her what happened.

I tell her I finally did it. My ninth-grade, unsure-of-who-I-am-yet self just stood up to the mean girls at the lunch table where I used to sit — the table my friend and I stopped sitting at a week ago with the girls who we thought were our friends.

“F*ck ‘em,” the teacher tells us.

I’m 14. And I don’t hear that word much. But I knew what she meant.

Behind those two screw-what-they-say words, I knew the teacher was telling us we are worthy of a friend group who respects us, who is honest with us and didn’t have to talk badly about us. We are worthy of being in a friend group that wasn’t a constant competition to be part of.

The hardest part — that friend who I stood up for went back to the friend group months later, and I never talked to her again.

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The group of my middle school friends who I became close with after I started running cross country. This photo of us with squinty eyes was taken after a Saturday charity race in 2008.

Girls can be mean. Really mean. We all can be.

It took me until after college to realize I had points in my life when I had been a mean girl sometimes, too.

But it didn’t take me long to realize those mean girls weren’t the type of friends I wanted.

And it didn’t take me long to realize there are mean girls everywhere, no matter how old you get.

***

It wasn’t the first time one of the girls from a certain sorority at my college had pushed me while walking past at Pub House, the bar that was torn down and now where a shiny Starbucks sits.

But it was the last time I let it happen without saying anything, taking action.

So I take to Facebook — what else would a girl who wants to call people out do?

I write about being tired of that sorority bullying my friends and that hate never wins. And I use the sorority’s name in the post, too.

The funniest part — I’m a legacy of that sorority.

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My three college roommates and I stuck together, especially junior and senior years. We’re still close and get together at least once a year to celebrate all our our birthdays, which fall within two months. Shannon, Madeline, me and Casey at our favorite spot — El Cancun restaurant.

A few days later, I’m contacted by the dean’s office.

I freak out because I’m about to graduate and part of me worries these girls have come up with this elaborate story to get me in trouble.

I walk into the dean’s office, my heart beating.

But I had nothing to worry about — it was the best conversation I could’ve hoped for.

It’s like she said without flat out saying that she understood my side.

I could tell she knew it was silly, high school-like drama — drama I knew I was too old for.

She didn’t want me leaving the university, graduating in bad spirits.

And I didn’t.

Great things happened to me before I graduated, things two years later I started to realize happened to reassure me the mean girls were calling me a whore just to be mean and pushing me around to belittle me.

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I presented my undergraduate research on discrimination against women in the workplace at SOURCE in 2016. The research was a project in one of my favorite classes — multimedia reporting of public issues.

I presented my undergraduate research project at a conference — a project on discrimination against women in the workplace. And I won my first ever award — the Terry Plumb Journalism Award for general reporting after covering a range of topics during my internship at The Herald in Rock Hill.

The great things were a push of encouragement, a you’ve-got-this reminder as I went into my first job as a journalist.

***

Now having shared the two worst bullying incidents I’ve been through, and if you mean gals have even read this far or at all, I’d like to thank all of the mean girls.

Thank you for making me strong enough to push through the hurt of your meanness.

Thank you for bullying me so in turn I could be my own advocate, telling myself and encouraging myself that all you said bad about me wasn’t true.

Thank you for being the subject in this it-was-hell-but-it-gets-better blog — a blog I hope will touch others who have struggled with the same things.

Thank you for doubting me because it feels so great to prove you wrong.

And most of all, thank you to my ex-friend group who abandoned me in ninth grade because you taught me how to be an independent, real, down-to-earth person. You all taught me what kind of friends I do want and what kind of friends I don’t want. You taught me to be a person who understands what really is key to making a quality life — humility, understanding and listening others’ brokenness, accepting people as they come.

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A big laugh at our old “neighbs” house. We always brought the moose blanket along.

A decade later, I see Myrtle Beach differently than I did as a girl

My preteen legs run fast to the top of my great aunt and uncle’s Myrtle Beach motel.

It’s pouring rain, and half a dozen of us cousins are racing to the top of the Midtown Motor Inn to see the rain falling over the ocean.

We sit at the top on that green artificial turf that covers the stairs and balcony floors.

We talk, watch the rain, climb on the stair railings like monkeys.

And now, more than a decade later, I drive by that old motel and remember how innocently happy we were running around those floors, swimming in the motel pool, knocking on guests’ doors and running away.

I remember us getting our own motel room for our cousin sleepovers, jumping on the two beds that had coin slots which made the beds vibrate – something you don’t see anymore. I remember grabbing warm towels out of the big dryer to help fold and put on the cart that took the clean towels to rooms.

I’ll never forget our countless trips to the Pavilion – my favorite amusement park that isn’t there anymore. I nearly cried when I heard it was going away.

I’ve been back in the area for about a month, reporting at The Sun News – a paper my family and I drove by tons of times when I was growing up.

But now I’m seeing the things I never saw in my lack-of-understanding-the-bad years.

A prostitution bust.

 

Police arresting someone in connection to drugs in an Ocean Boulevard hotel.

A Coastal Carolina football player charged by police with criminal sexual conduct, which I found in a routine look through police reports early one morning.

Part of me wonders – has there always been this much crime? Or did I just not know of it when I was a little girl? I’m not sure if that question can be answered.

But I’m so thankful for my job – a job that lets me dig into those issues, shine light where some may not want it shined.

I know it’s important to shine that light. I know families on vacation should know what’s going on. And I know locals should know the dangers around where they live.

Though I miss my young years, growing up ignorant to the bad stuff, I’m happy to be back to make a difference in the area that helped raised me.

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Follow reporter Hannah Louise Strong on Twitter @HannahLStrong.

They try to ‘skedaddle’ as the bulldozer is feet away

I hear her talking loudly over the bulldozer – the bulldozer that’s clearing out her home in the woods.

The photojournalist Jason and I covering the story realize what we were hoping for on the car ride over was true – the people living in this soon-to-be-gone homeless camp are there.

They’re collecting their stuff.

Their hands nearly black from dirt.

Sweating just feet away from the bulldozer.

They’re frantically grabbing everything they can so they can take it to where they’re going next – a destination they haven’t figured out yet.

We greet the two and the man waves his hand high in the air at us.

Now we’re standing a couple feet from them, asking what they’re doing, what their thoughts are about their things being scooped and placed in a dumpster.

And I’m just standing there in awe, like I was a few days ago when I first visited the camp. Nobody was there then, but you could tell it was someone’s makeshift home.

Clothes hung on coat hangers from tree limbs. Plastic bottles, mattresses, cans scattered about. Two tents nearly falling over.

I stand listening to the man and woman, trying to pull away from my emotions, away from the sadness I feel for this man and woman.

I have to get their story. A story I know people need to hear, a story I’m willing to trek through the muddy woods to get.

They’re a couple who met three years ago at bingo.

I start taking notes of what he’s saying.

I write down what they’re wearing – he’s in overalls, she’s in a sheer top and lace-like pants.

I write down their names – Mark and Sonya.

They met at bingo three years ago.

He has been homeless on and off. He has Graves’ disease, he says. He’s 60 years old.

She spent 15 years as a waitress. She had a husband who died in Afghanistan ten years ago. She has a son.

Three cops sit on the outskirts of the woods in their pick-up trucks.

They watch Mark and Sonya. They watch the bulldozer.

I walk over to them.

I’m quickly told they can’t comment.

And I think to myself – Dear, Lord please let there be a day where cops don’t think we’re the scum from the bottom of a shoe.

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I try to connect with the police. Try to show them I’m a human. Two know my family, my grandpa.

And then they’re friendly after we make the connection.

Mark and Sonya are deep into the woods now. Jason isn’t in sight.

I stand at the end of the trees waiting for him to come back, thinking I probably may never see Mark and Sonya again.

But I was wrong.

Two days later, they’d show up at The Sun News.

Follow reporter Hannah Louise Strong on Twitter @HannahLStrong

Homeless camp is like nothing I’ve seen before

“Hello. Hello. Anybody home?” my colleague Jason Lee calls into a homeless camp.

Nobody answers.

“Watch where you step,” he says to me. “There may be needles.”

The tree limbs work as hangers in a closet. Clothes hang on nearly every tree and blow in the wind. We keep thinking we’re seeing a person each time the wind makes the clothes move.

But no one is there.

Jason’s taking photos. I’m looking around.

Fresh donuts are in a box in a grocery cart. Another box is on the ground. It’s half full. Some donuts are smashed in the dirt.

There’s just absolute junk everywhere – a toilet seat, a bong, a cardboard wine box that’s been ruined by rain. I see a lamp shade, a half way set up tent, shoes.

I keep thinking – I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s just incredible.

 

Jason, a multi-media journalist, and I both agree it doesn’t feel right walking into someone’s home. Though the homes are outside and homes we aren’t traditionally used to.

We’re just off of U.S. 501 in Myrtle Beach. We hear the cars racing by these two homeless camps, which are less than one hundred yards apart.

The reason we’re here is because one of the camps caught fire just a week ago. Our editor has sent us to check out the area again, to look for more camps.

I’m hoping we will run into people who live here. I want to hear stories about how they ended up living in the woods, what brought them here, what life is like in a tent.

And I want to tell those stories. I want to tell their stories to educate others, to shine light in these woods.

But nobody’s home.

We see a sign put up by county officials soon after the fire. It says the area will be cleaned up next week.

After looking at the area, we go to a warehouse-looking building that has a few businesses inside, like a motorcycle shop and another place where engines are built.

The owner of the building, a man who builds engines and rents out the motorcycle shop, says homeless people have lived in the woods beside his shop for the last 10 years. You can throw a rock from the camps and hit his building.

I wonder – why have these camps been set up so close to these businesses?

The camp closest to the building is the one that caught fire. The metal trashcan and area that burnt is still visible.

A manager at the motorcycle shop tells us that workers were throwing buckets of water on the flames to make sure the building didn’t catch fire.

I try to figure out what the story is here after seeing all of this. There are dozens of homeless camps in Myrtle. And I’ve got a lot of questions.

I have a feeling the story is a lot bigger than just one write up on these two camps.

We hop in Jason’s SUV and head to our next stop – an apartment where a 33 year old lived who died in a car crash a few days ago.

Follow reporter Hannah Louise Strong on Twitter @HannahLStrong.

My first prison interview

The operator from a S.C. prison says, “You have 15 seconds left on this call.”

“Let me call you right back,” the woman tells me.

She’s in prison for attempted armed robbery – since 2013.

My reason for speaking with her – her 19-year-old son was shot dead the month before in Lancaster.

The last time she saw him – 2014.

And she isn’t allowed to go to his funeral.

I sit there and wonder how we got here, wonder why this happened.

I remember two days before, sitting down with another mother whose 17-year-old son was fatally shot.

I think about my grandparents who lost their son – my uncle – when he was just 19 years old. He was stabbed in the back with a knife at a football game.

I wonder – why so young?

Is it jealousy over a girl? Is it anger over who won a game? Is it because a bully’s feeling threatened?

What during teenage years could be horrible enough to kill somebody? Somebody with a whole life ahead of them.

My off-the-record conversations later tell me the truth, and it wasn’t just a silly game.

My goal with every interview I do on the streets and with families after a murder is to find answers, regardless of how bad I annoy the cops and friends and eye-witnesses. I do it because it’s a public safety issue. I do it to inform the public about what’s really going on.

The phone is on speaker. The boy’s grandmother and aunt, who both took care of him after his mother went to jail, sit on the sofa beside me.

The mother mentions her nine children.

But this one – he’s always stood out, she says.

I hold back my tears and finish my last questions: What kind of kid was he? What was he involved in at school? What type of father was he to his little girl?

I let her pause to hold tears back, too, and finish her answers.

And I leave the home with just a little bit of peace, hoping I gave the family some closure.

But I know the hurt will always be there.

 

Follow reporter Hannah Louise Strong on Twitter @HannahLStrong

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