Control the narrative. Everyone wants to control the narrative. The President of the United States has had a press secretary for nearly a century. That’s understandable, though. When you have to make decisions about declaring war, navigate a missile crisis, or find yourself in a precarious position with an intern you better have someone ready to spin the story for you. By now, everyone should be intelligent enough to see through the smoke and mirrors of a press secretary, but in 2023 it seems like every organization needs to control their own narratives; to paint pictures of their own reality.

The mayor’s office in Jackson has a communications director to share the news of the city. The school system has a Chief of Public Information. Hell, I even waded in that water for a year and half as the Chief Communications Officer for Haywood County Schools. It’s not an easy task to communicate information in a way that’s transparent but overly positive at the same time. I had a few missteps in my role, but mainly because I was too honest. You can’t be totally truthful in a role like that; you have to be smart about how and when you communicate information. I like to create; I like to tell stories. I also like to look at all sides of an issue – the good, the bad, and the ugly. I couldn’t do that in my previous role; it was difficult to walk that line. And, that’s why I can sympathize with whatever the hell our local law enforcement entities were thinking when they promoted a couple of events this week.

For the last several years, the building of the new jail has been in the news. Even at the most polarizing point in our societal history, everyone in Madison County could agree that having to build a new (and bigger) jail was a bad deal. The jail here had become too small and too outdated to house the number of inmates that were being placed there, so the state of Tennessee stepped in and essentially said “Y’all get ready to pony up some money because your current jail sucks.” That’s not verbatim or anything, but you get the gist. 

There was the obvious community uproar; the questions about why we were arresting so many people in the first place. Those questions should be answered at some point, but the fact of the matter was that a new jail had to be begrudgingly built and unenthusiastically paid for by taxpayers. It’s kind of like an invasive surgery that’s needed for your health – you’re not looking forward to it, you never wanted it to begin with, and you really just want to move beyond it after it’s over. That was the collective mindset of the community about the jail. It’s not something we really wanted to acknowledge or think about; we just held our nose and took our medicine.  

Well, the Madison County Sheriff’s Department didn’t think that was the best play. They wanted us to take the bitter pill, but convince us it was bubble gum flavored.

This week, the following flyer was sent out to the community regarding the new jail:

If we break this down simply on a visual communicatory level, the first thing we’ll notice is the bold and capitalized font of “Open House!” with the exclamation point added for emphasis – you know, just in case you still weren’t sure if this new jail was a good thing for the community. Say it out loud with the exclamation point, and it just makes you feel a little bit better about it. In fact, someone managed to squeeze FOUR exclamation points into that flier just to make sure you know how great this place is. 

A couple of other things on this poster caught my eye, too. One was the mascot named Eddie Eagle on the right side of the page. So, if you want to bring your kids to see a place that probably conjures a lot of negative emotions for some children in our community who have had a parent incarcerated in that building, it’s okay – there’s a cool mascot there to give you a high-five while you get your fingerprints made.

You can also “Tour the New Facility – EXCLAMATION POINT”. When I think of an open house, my mind immediately leaps to two scenarios: a house for sale or the beginning of a school year. I’ve been part of both.

As a teacher, I needed to make sure my room was the cleanest it had ever been before parents saw it because I needed them to feel comfortable sending their children to my school and my classroom. Desks were aligned in straight rows; papers were organized and filed. I would look at it in wonder and wish it looked as pristine on a random Tuesday in February as it did on Open House Night in August. As a parent, I’d walk into my daughter’s classrooms with a wink and a nod because I knew the game…and I knew whatever I was seeing that night wasn’t reality.

On the real estate side of the open house coin, I was always a sucker for a staged property. Realtors should’ve loved to see me walking through that door. I’d take one look at the manufactured rooms and want to make an offer right then and there. They did their jobs well – they made me think I wanted to buy that house because of the mirage they had created. Ever since I saw that flyer from the MCSD, I’ve tried to picture how nice they could make a cell look. I still can’t quite summon that image.

Not to be outdone by the carnivalesque flier of the MCSD, the Jackson Police Department decided to create their own CANVA artwork and promote an Easter Egg Hunt. 

Check it out.

I love the idea of this event. I truly do. It’s outstanding – an Easter Egg hunt that’s FREE, FUN, and INCLUSIVE. But, I just can’t get behind the image of a person wearing a blast suit while pretending to diffuse an egg that’s mimicking the sounds of an explosive device. 

I imagine the planning meeting going something like this:

  • I think we should have an inclusive Easter egg hunt for the visually impaired.
  • Yes. I agree. 
  • But how can we make this idea a little bit worse?
  • What if we pretend the eggs are IED’s and program them to beep like a bomb?
  • Hmmmm…you think that’s too far? Won’t that make a serious issue seem sort of trivial?
  • Nah. In fact, let’s partner with the JPD and call it an “Egg-Splosion” hunt!
  • I love it!

Look, a lot of what I’ve been writing up to this point is tongue in cheek; it’s an exaggeration of well-intentioned events, but I do believe there are blind spots that need to be explored in regards to both of these outreach projects – specifically the open house for the new jail. 

A few things I would like clarify before moving forward:

I’m not anti-police or anti-law enforcement. I do not believe we should defund the police. Law enforcement done the right way is necessary for the health and safety of a community. But messaging matters. 

I don’t believe there was any ill-intent by either law enforcement unit. I believe they were trying – in their own way – to engage the community in events that would help bridge gaps that exist between parts of the community and police. That being said, there needs to be some sensitivity to how those things are presented… especially when it comes to inviting the public to the new jail. 

Even though I didn’t vote for Sheriff Wiser, I know enough to know that he didn’t want this jail any more than the rest of the community. I know that he’ll be a better sheriff of Madison County than the previous one. I also know that there are positive programs in place in the jail to help reduce recidivism. And, that’s something we can all support.

I also know that the criminal justice system, both globally and locally, is a source of pain and sadness for a lot of families. The jail is a place that has stolen parents, stolen opportunities, and stolen parts of people’s lives. Next to China, America houses more inmates in their prison system than any other country in the world. A jail isn’t a place that we can try and spin in a positive manner; it’s a place that is a woeful necessity for a fraction of the population, but also an inequitable home for people of lesser means who would be walking free today if they had financial means to afford a decent lawyer or afford more opportunities in their lives.

These flyers are darkly comical in one way and seriously concerning in another. We all have our blind spots about different things in the world that we all share. Moving forward, let’s try and keep those in the front of our minds.

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