Like many stories, this one began with a tip. In late July, someone in the Bangor area heard a rumor about alleged misconduct at the Penobscot County Jail and called us up.
It took about four months to fully confirm the story, which published Dec. 3. It focuses on one correctional officer’s pattern of alleged sexual harassment, leading to his resignation in June amid an investigation of his conduct by the sheriff’s office.
As the story shows, however, it’s one thing for jail leaders to authorize an investigation and another for people to feel comfortable enough speaking out. For years, Corporal Steven Buzzell allegedly sent explicit images to former inmates, colleagues and a jail volunteer — something many described as an open secret.
Jails are, by their nature, closed-off places, and it’s rare for reporters to see, up close, how they operate. On the few occasions employees and inmates agree to interviews, it’s usually because they have a concern that they think deserves public attention.
Reports of sexual misconduct have dominated national news in the past year, but nearly all the women we reached out to for this story were reluctant to speak to us, and some declined.
Many of the guards we spoke to, for instance, still work at the jail and were unwilling to jeopardize their employment.
Former inmates proved especially challenging to speak to. Most were difficult to track down given that they were homeless, on the move, didn’t have reliable phones or means of communication, or were, in general, wary of backlash.
One woman was arrested and sent back to jail over the course of our reporting — a possibility that posed a worry for nearly all the former inmates who considered speaking out against the place where they might return.
So the challenges shaped how we were able to tell the story.
The Bangor Daily News doesn’t often use anonymous sources, but much of this story is built on interviews with people we do not name. In two cases, we used pseudonyms (“Carla” and “Rebecca”) to avoid confusing them with other anonymous voices.
We chose to not identify people we felt had valuable information but said they feared retaliation if they spoke on the record.
It’s also important to note that the BDN doesn’t typically name alleged victims of sexual offenses — even if their names appear in public court documents — unless they give us permission. We do that because, most often, there’s greater public benefit to protecting alleged victims’ safety than the public’s right to know their name.
The core reporting in this story is based on interviews with people who said they received explicit pictures or unwelcome sexual advances from Buzzell — and had no physical evidence. All the women interviewed by the BDN said they deleted the images because they didn’t want others to find them on their devices.
So, to verify their claims, the BDN conducted interviews with people who could corroborate their stories. That means they either saw the pictures or misconduct firsthand, or the victim told them about it soon after.
In addition to the victims and their corroborating sources, we spoke to additional jail employees, former jail employees, more female inmates and county officials to form a basis for how this behavior continued for many years without it being reported to administrators.
In the end, we interviewed more than 30 people with knowledge of different aspects of the jail. Their combined perspectives portrayed a place where few guards wanted to speak up against perceived abuses of power.
Given the serious nature of the allegations, the BDN made a number of efforts to ensure that Buzzell could share his side of the story. We went to his house and left a note; we called several times and spoke to him twice; he declined to comment each time. We called him back and left a voicemail outlining the claims in the piece. And, later on, after we heard from more alleged victims, we repeated the process via text, so he could see the allegations written out.
We’re still open to speaking to him — and anyone who has additional information to share. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.