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:

Why I do it 1

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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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.

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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