Opinion » Viewpoint

Unforced Error

A mistake in last week's Flyer cover story draws attention.



Drumroll, please.

We screwed up. Last week's cover story, "Prescription for Disaster," asserted that the taxpayers of Shelby County had paid out more than $40 million to settle lawsuits filed by inmates at the Shelby County jail since 1996. This is incorrect. The county has only paid out around $7 million to settle lawsuits from all departments since 1996.

In point of fact, pending legitimate lawsuits totaling much more than $40 million have been filed by inmates, but these have not been adjudicated yet. The reporter made an error and the editors failed to catch it. The buck stops with me.

This error became "news" when county commissioner Cleo Kirk raised questions about the story at the tail end of this week's commission meeting. In an attempt to clarify the situation, Flyer senior editor Jackson Baker -- who was covering the meeting -- told the commission that the paper had been apprised of the likelihood of error and would not hestitate to take whatever corrective measures proved necessary. A Commercial Appeal reporter then filed a story on the incident, which became top-of-the-page news in last Tuesday's CA. Rather than simply running a "correction" in this week's Flyer, as is standard practice for newspapers, I felt that the added coverage of our mistake warranted a fuller explanation.

The most unfortunate aspect of this affair is that the solid reporting in the rest of the story has perhaps now become overshadowed by the error in its lead paragraph. Correctional Medical Services, the company hired by the county to provide health care to downtown jail inmates, has had more than its share of troubles across the country -- and now here in Memphis. Inmates and their families have filed hundreds of suits against the company totaling millions of dollars nationwide. It's a story that had not heretofore been told locally.

Our reporter documented CMS's hiring of doctors with questionable backgrounds -- including sex offenders and drug abusers -- doctors the company could get to work for the $55 an hour it pays physicians. In Shelby County, CMS's director of inmate services -- John Perry -- is called "Dr. Perry" even though he only holds a master's degree in administration and psychology. We also reported on the eight suicides at the jail since 1993, which included two 16-year-old boys. Suicides that could have been prevented if the jail had been run better.

There are huge problems with the jail, problems that don't seem to be getting better, as we've reported over the past few months. Federal judge Jon McCalla has ordered the Sheriff's Department to come up with a plan to reduce crowding or be held in contempt. Gangs have ruled various aspects of the jail, even going so far as to stage mock gladiator-style fights between hapless inmates. Wrongful deaths, assaults, and rapes have occurred far too often. The citizens of Shelby County are already out millions of dollars in lawsuit settlements due to problems with the Sheriff's Department and the jail. We will all keep paying until the problems are fixed.

The mistake in last week's Flyer can be, and should be, publicly corrected. The mistakes being made down at 201 Poplar are going to be much more difficult and costly to fix.

And you can take that story to the bank.

Bruce VanWyngarden is the editor of the Flyer.

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