The Post and Courier receives the Pulliam First Amendment Award
Matthew Kent, Program Coordinator, 317-920-4788, firstname.lastname@example.org
Ashlynn Neumeyer, SPJ Communications Coordinator, 317-361-4133, email@example.com
INDIANAPOLIS — The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, is the winner of the Eugene S. Pulliam First Amendment Award for its project “It’s Time for You to Die: How flaws in the South Carolina prison system led to 7 deaths in a single night.”
This story shares what happened the night of the deadliest explosion of U.S. prison violence in 25 years as fighting broke out at Lee Correctional Institution. More than a year after the incident, the public remained in the dark because officials refused to explain how it unfolded or what caused it, so the Post and Courier decided to document what happened.
To piece together what happened that day in 2018, Post and Courier reporters Jennifer Berry Hawes, Stephen Hobbs, Glenn Smith and Seanna Adcox collected thousands of pages of documents through open records requests, public records and more and interviewed more than 150 state officials, experts, attorneys, current and former corrections officers and inmates — including direct witnesses to the violence. The team wrote letters to more than 400 current and former inmates, mostly men housed at Lee during the killing spree, and communicated with more than 100 inmates through letters, emails, text messages and phone calls.
These measures were taken due to the numerous challenges experienced while writing this story. State and federal officials refused to release audits of the riot or the identities of staff and inmates who were at Lee when the fighting occurred, and reporters were only allowed face-to-face access to inmates during organized tours.
The story revealed four key contributors to the violence: a lack of correctional officers to enforce basic security, gangs allowed to operate with virtual impunity, a mass transfer of rival gang members into Lee before the riot and ineffective cell locks that officials had ignored for years.
Days after the story ran, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster called for $100 million more in his budget proposal to fund prison staff raises and security upgrades. Lawmakers also pledged to fast-track legislation to help corrections shut down illicit cell phone numbers, which fueled the gangs’ contraband economy and helped orchestrate the spread of violence at Lee.
“Their dogged work — with reporting that included multiple FOIA requests, essential emails and dozens of interviews with inmates — proves that excellent journalism is the best defense of the First Amendment,” the awards judges said.
Presented by the Society of Professional Journalists Foundation, the award recognizes those who have fought to protect and preserve one or more of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. The winners will receive $10,000 and an engraved crystal award. They will be recognized at the SPJ2020 Journalism Conference, Sept. 12-13.
Learn more about the award and view previous winners.
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