Reporters Anna Wolfe and Michelle Liu of Mississippi Today have been awarded the 2021 Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award for “Think Debtors Prisons Are a Thing of the Past? Not in Mississippi.” Their year-long investigation reveals how Mississippi locks people into modern-day debtors prisons where they’re sentenced to an amount of money, rather than time. First-of-its-kind data analysis by The Marshall Project’s Andrew R. Calderón shows that black people are disproportionately sentenced to these facilities, known as “restitution centers.”
Wolfe, Liu and Calderon revealed that the people detained in these facilities are placed into low-wage, sometimes dangerous jobs—the Mississippi Department of Corrections handles their paychecks and takes the first cut in “room and board” and transportation costs. Since the story was published, Mississippi state legislators have filed several bills to end the restitution program, and State Auditor Shad White called for changes to problems flagged by our reporting: “The state must fix this, and now.”
“For the sixteenth year in a row, The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation is pleased to recognize the most compelling journalistic examinations of crime, violence, and justice in the United States,” said Foundation President Daniel F. Wilhelm. “Such work is essential to understanding how best to address the challenges our society faces in these important areas.” This year’s prize will also be awarded to ProPublica for their series documenting the New York Police Department’s failure to hold officers accountable for excessive use of force.
This investigation was a collaboration between The Marshall Project and Mississippi Today, and was also published by the USA Today Network, the Clarion-Ledger, the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and Mississippi Public Broadcasting. Leslie Eaton of The Marshall Project and R.L. Nave of Mississippi Today edited the project.
“We’re so honored to receive this award for a project we cared about deeply,” said Susan Chira, editor-in-chief of The Marshall Project. “It’s core to our mission to partner with local news organizations to help produce accountability journalism. Mississippi Today’s intrepid reporters had the local sources and relentless digging, and we were able to add seasoned investigative editing and data analysis resources to expose the shameful practice of modern-day debtors prisons.”
The annual John Jay College of Criminal Justice/Harry Frank Guggenheim Awards for Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting recognize the best in print and digital justice reporting. They are administered by the John Jay Center on Media, Crime and Justice. See the rest of this year’s winners and runners-up here.