Pennlive. March 23, 2024

Dauphin County Commissioner Justin Douglas can be forgiven for not having all the answers to the questions PennLive’s Editorial Board asked about conditions in Dauphin County Prison. In fact, he had very few.

Douglas stepped into his new role a little over two months ago and was awarded one of the most challenging jobs of all: overseeing Dauphin County prison. Veteran Commissioners George Hartwick and Mike Pries might have been able to provide more background about conditions at the prison, but they didn’t participate in the meeting streamed live to PennLive’s Facebook page.

PennLive invited all three commissioners to attend the meeting or advise a time more suitable for their schedules. Hartwick and Pries were unable to provide one.

One Editorial Board member lauded Douglas for his courage in just showing up, but the commissioner dismissed the praise. He was right to do so. Elected official are supposed to answer questions from the public and the media. It’s a basic part of their jobs and a hallmark of transparency and honesty in public office.

But we have to give Douglas kudos for his honesty in his first meeting with the Editorial Board since he took office. He made no bones about just how bad things are at the prison, and he didn’t pretend to know how to solve problems ranging from cockroach infestations in the kitchen, to young men dying in alarming numbers from mysterious causes.

But just as Douglas did during the election season, he did not shirk his duty as an elected official to step up and take questions, even if he couldn’t answer most of them after a few weeks in office.

PennLive’s Joshua Vaughn has spent months documenting serious issues at Dauphin County prison, and it’s past time the people in positions of authority addressed them. The county spent thousands of dollars to hire John Wetzel, former Secretary of Corrections for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, to identify problems and solutions. The county even hired former Lancaster Police Chief John Bey to oversee Dauphin County corrections. But cockroaches are still flying, and people are still dying.

Thirty-three-year-old Justin Cofield’s death on Feb. 23 was the 21st in the prison since January 2019. Cofield was the third person to die at Dauphin County jail since December.

And PennLive reporter Joshua Vaughn reported recently that officials cut off power t o two segregation blocks in the basement of Dauphin County Prison late last year and kept it off for more than two weeks. People inside were in the dark for at least 14 hours each day.

Douglas didn’t know who ordered the power cut off, but it allegedly was to stop inmates from using electrical power to smoke drugs. The question is, how do drugs get inside a prison in the first place? Even Douglas conceded it has to be prison staff or vendors who are bringing them in.

So, Douglas also is asking for mandatory screenings of all prison employees. That makes sense.

And to try to assess what’s causing so many deaths from apparently natural causes inside the prison, Douglas is calling for a performance audit of PrimeCare Medical, which provides medical services inside the prison.

In fact, he’s open to an audit all prison operations to get at the root causes of the prison’s dangerous disfunction. That idea came from Dr. Nirmal Joshi on our Editorial Board. It’s amazing no one thought of doing that before.

But as Douglas repeatedly reminded the board, he’s only one of three commissioners and only one of seven members of the prison board that has ultimate say. He’s just one vote. It will take a majority of county officials from both parties working together in Dauphin County government to get anything done. And these days, that seems to be hard to achieve.

Like the families marching outside the prison walls for their loved ones, we’re tired of begging officials to cooperate to do the work they’re being paid to do. If Dauphin County commissioners and the prison board can’t ensure prison operations are sanitary and safe, a higher authority needs to step in. But what authority has the power to do so?

That was another question Commissioner Douglas couldn’t answer, but somebody should. The state took control of the City of Harrisburg when it couldn’t manage its finances a decade or so ago. The state took control of the Harrisburg School District when the public lost trust in its management.

It may be time for the state to take control to keep more people from dying in Dauphin County prison.


Uniontown Herald-Standard. March 23, 2024

In May, a press release from the office of U.S. Sen. John Fetterman landed in the email inboxes of journalists around Pennsylvania.

It was headlined this way: “Fetterman on New Castle Train Derailment: Same S-t, Different Day.”

The train that derailed in New Castle was a Norfolk Southern train, and it happened just a few months after another Norfolk Southern train went off the tracks in East Palestine, Ohio, causing evacuations in that village and lingering concerns over chemicals that were released in the accident. Fetterman’s frustration was understandable, but it was hard not to be distracted by the use of a word that cannot be printed in this newspaper in the headline of a press release from someone who holds one of the highest offices in the commonwealth.

Simply put, Fetterman – and many other elected officials – are letting the profanity fly a little bit too much.

Of course, in Fetterman’s case, using the s-word is undoubtedly part of his straight-talking, Carhartt-wearing, every-dude persona, the kind of guy who doesn’t have patience for the circumlocutions that most lawmakers regularly engage in. And Fetterman is hardly alone among marquee politicians in deploying profanity.

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene recently told a journalist to “f-k off” when she didn’t like a line of questioning. Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke dropped an f-bomb a handful of years ago when discussing media coverage of mass shootings. And, in 2019, U.S. Rep. Rashida Talib said that she and her colleagues would “impeach the motherf-r” in reference to then-President Trump.

But Trump himself is hardly a slouch when it comes to profanity. He has dropped the s-bomb and has said “bulls-t” in speeches, as well as “hell” and “damn,” both of which are kind of on the borderline now between being profane and being a benign part of everyday speech. When The New York Times reported in 2019 about Trump’s use of profanity, Melissa Mohr, the author of “Holy Sh(asterisk)t: A Brief History of Swearing,” observed that the profanity was actually part of Trump’s appeal to his followers.

“It helps create the impression that he is saying what he thinks, ‘telling it like it is,’” Mohr said. “We tend to believe people when they swear, because we interpret these words as a sign of strong emotions. In his case, the emotion is often powerful anger, which his supporters seem to love.”

Anyone who has spent any time in a newsroom knows that profanity can be unleashed in them, particularly on deadline, so not many reporters or editors search for smelling salts or a fainting coach when they hear words you wouldn’t have used in front of your grandmother a generation or two ago. And that’s undoubtedly the case in many other workplaces. We’re a much more open, less formal society than we once were, and that’s not entirely a bad thing. The way we interact with one another has become more informal, so perhaps it’s to be expected that the likes of Fetterman and Trump occasionally let loose with some expletives.

Still, it’s not necessarily prudish to think that they should be setting a better example and keeping the profanity to a minimum. We’re not expecting eloquence on the order of Benjamin Disraeli or Winston Churchill – just something that won’t require covering the ears of our children.


York Dispatch. March 24, 2024

When confronted by the ignorance of someone like state Rep. Joe D’Orsie, it can be tempting to respond in kind.

Perhaps if D’Orsie’s constituents routinely misgendered him, he would understand the impact of legislation he’s backing that would exempt school employees from honoring the pronouns of LGBTQ+ students.

Instead, we’ll use this as a teachable moment.

First, it’s important to understand that sex and gender are different, even though we sometimes use the words interchangeably.

When we’re born, doctors typically assign a sex based on our genitals: Male, female or intersex, itself a complicated medical term describing a person born with both male and female biological traits.

Gender describes the lived experience of being a man, a woman, a nonbinary person, and so on. Many aspects of gender — blue for boy and pink for girl, for example — have nothing to do with one’s sex. Individuals typically have no control over these gender expressions until they’re older.

Further, we don’t have any control over how other people perceive our gender. People perceive gender based on visual and social cues — one’s clothes, hairstyle, the sound of their voice — that may not correspond whatsoever to sex or gender. The Aerosmith song “Dude Looks Like a Lady” is an example of the difference between gender expression and gender perception.

Transgender people often describe the experience of realizing that their gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth — and the gender expression that their families continued to enforce through childhood.

Nonbinary, meanwhile, is an umbrella term that describes people whose gender identity and expression fall outside the strictures of the male/female or man/woman binary.

Individuals whose gender is different from the sex they were assigned at birth or whose gender expression falls outside the binary sometimes take on new names or use pronouns that are different from the ones they used as children. And some people choose not to label themselves at all.

People don’t take changing their name or pronouns lightly. It’s typically the result of years of consideration and reflects who they are at their core. Misgendering someone or using a former name — sometimes described as a “deadname” — is a deeply disrespectful act.

Respecting a person’s gender isn’t difficult, and a lot of it comes down to basic human dignity or following the Golden Rule.

First, if you — like Steven Tyler — aren’t sure which pronoun to use, ask.

Don’t assume that a person who has disclosed to you that they are nonbinary or transgender is open about that fact with everyone. Avoid sharing the information unless you have the person’s permission.

Further, don’t ask sensitive personal questions — for example, about whether the person plans to undergo gender reassignment surgery. If the person feels comfortable sharing that information, they will without your prompting.

If you slip up and misgender or deadname someone, apologize and move on. One tip to avoid slip-ups, particularly if you’ve known someone by a different name, is to go out of your way to repeat the person’s name and pronouns. Later on, you could describe all the things you like about the person using their name and pronouns.

Ultimately, remember that LGBTQ+ people are people.

We all — even Mr. D’Orsie — should be judged by the content of our character, not by our gender.


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