The stories of heroin addicts overdosing in unusual places have become numbingly familiar: a McDonald’s play area, inside a children’s hospital, even while driving down the highway.
But it was another odd location -- the restroom of a library -- that drove Columbus reporter Kantele Franko to identify an additional, tragic twist to these stories. Franko learned over several weeks of reporting that the same qualities that make libraries ideal for studying and reading — unfettered public access, quiet corners and nooks, minimal interaction with other people — also make them appealing places to shoot heroin.
In Norfolk, Virginia, for example, a 47-year-old man died after a patron found him in a library restroom. In Batesville, Indiana, and New Brunswick, New Jersey, police revived others in library restrooms using a common overdose antidote.
And in one of the saddest anecdotes, Franko learned that the body of a homeless man who frequented the Oak Park Public Library in suburban Chicago might have been there for days, fully clothed and slumped on the toilet in a restroom on the quiet third floor, before a maintenance worker unlocked it on a Monday morning in April and discovered him. The empty syringe and lighter in his pockets and the cut soda can in the trash pointed to the cause, an accidental heroin overdose.
“The country's heroin and painkiller problem has produced public overdoses in many places, including restaurants, gas stations, alleys and even hospitals, but the inherent attributes of public libraries leave them especially exposed.”
As Franko wrote: “The country's heroin and painkiller problem has produced public overdoses in many places, including restaurants, gas stations, alleys and even hospitals, but the inherent attributes of public libraries leave them especially exposed. They're free and open for whoever walks in, and lingering is welcome, no transaction or interaction required.”
Franko has made a habit out of spotting important trends by paying attention to little developments, and this story was no exception. She continued to pursue her reporting even while working multiple shifts as both late and early breaking news staffer.
The story was in the top ten on AP Mobile for the week. It also "blew up" on library listservs, according to the librarian husband of Deputy East Editor Pia Sarkar.
For her excellent work identifying and producing a well-told story about a tragic trend in the nation's ongoing heroin overdose epidemic, Franko wins this week's $300 Best of the States prize.