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By Jeremy Schiffres, Daily and Sunday Freeman, Kingston, N.Y.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Prisoner escapes!!! ...NOT

Just before 8 p.m. Thursday, we received a fax in the Freeman newsroom that began with these three lines:


The next line of the fax contained the name of the corrections officer who sent the fax and his rank (lieutenant), and Thursday’s date.

The fax went on to identify an inmate by name and provide the following description of him: male, 53 years old, white, 5-foot-11, 160 pounds, medium build, gray hair, brown eyes, glasses.

Below that was a state Department of Corrections inmate serial number, a picture of the inmate (which was too dark to make out) and the prison’s phone number.

As the supervising editor in the newsroom, I knew I needed to do two things immediately: Call the prison for additional information (i.e. details of the escape, what the guy was locked up for, how the search was being conducted) and get at least a short story on our Web site in order to alert the public.

The call to the prison was answered by an automated voice that instructed me to press 0 if I needed to speak with someone. I pressed 0, was put on hold for several seconds and then was cut off. So I made the call again, pressed 0 again and got cut off again. After this happened a third time, I decided to post on the Freeman’s Web site the small amount of information that I had – figuring a short story was better than no story – with a line at the end that read “More details will be posted here when they become available.”

I pounded out a few sentences and quickly got the story online, with the headline: “BREAKING NEWS: Inmate escapes from Napanoch prison.”

I then moved to another, slightly faster, computer in the newsroom to make sure the story had posted correctly, and, while sitting at that screen, I called the prison again.

This time, an officer picked up.

I identified myself by name, title and newspaper and asked the officer for any additional information he could provide about the escape.

“My apologies,” he said. “This is only a drill. That fax was sent to you in error.”

Excuse me?

“Are you telling me there’s been no escape from your prison?” I asked, both frustrated by the knowledge that I had posted a bogus story on our Web site and dumbfounded by the fact that the prison had sent the fax to media outlets.

“That’s correct,” he said. (The fax apparently was supposed to be sent only to law-enforcement agencies, who were aware no escape had occurred.)

I wanted to scold the officer for making such a boneheaded mistake, but I resisted the temptation and simply said “Thank you, goodbye” before hanging up. There was, after all, a slightly more pressing matter that required my attention: removing the escape story from our Web site.

I deleted the story within seconds and, looking at my watch, calculated that it had been “up” on our site for only two or three minutes – meaning few, if any, of our Web readers even saw the thing. Still, I was steamed about the whole ordeal because, like most journalists (celebrity gossip writers notwithstanding), I put accuracy above all else and shudder at the thought of publishing incorrect information.

Then I did something I’ve never done in my 20 years at the Freeman: I called our competitors to alert them to the prison’s goof so the story wouldn’t wind up on their Web sites, too, or in their print editions.

The newsroom phone at the Times Herald-Record in Middletown was answered by Oliver Mackson, who I’ve known since we were teenagers, and he told me that he, too, had called the prison and learned of the mistake. A woman answering the phone at the Poughkeepsie Journal was unaware the fax was fake and thanked me for the heads-up. And Hank Gross, who runs a local Internet-only news service called, was equally thankful for my call.

The prison, by the way, did send a follow-up fax to admit its error, but not until 53 minutes after the original was transmitted.

The second fax was virtually the same as the first, with one notable difference: The words DRILL ONLY were scrawled across the sheet in big black letters.

Oh, well. Better late than never, I guess.



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