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Announcing the Winner of the 2021 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting

The Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School is pleased to present the 2021 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting to: 

“Mississippi’s Dangerous and Dysfunctional Penal System”

by Joseph Neff, Alysia Santo, Anna Wolfe, and Michelle Liu
of The Marshall Project, Mississippi Today, Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, Jackson Clarion-Ledger, and the USA TODAY Network. 

The Goldsmith Prize, founded in 1991 and funded by a gift from the Greenfield Foundation, honors the best public service investigative journalism that has made an impact on local, state, or federal public policy or the practice of politics in the United States. Finalists receive $10,000, and the winner receives $25,000. All prize monies go to the journalist or team that produced the reporting.

About the winning investigative reporting project, and its impact: 

Mississippi has America’s most dangerous and antiquated penal system – The Marshall Project and Mississippi Today uncovered why. Severe understaffing has made prisons so dangerous that even guards aren’t safe. The state is paying millions of dollars to private prisons for workers who don’t show up. And Mississippi is the only state still running debtors prisons, where people with mostly low-level convictions are sentenced to prison-like facilities to work off fines, court fees, and restitution. Residents in these “restitution centers” often stay longer than necessary to pay off their debts. Lawmakers have called for defunding the centers and turning them into halfway houses, and the Mississippi State Auditor issued a scathing report, saying “the state must fix this, and now.” He also launched an investigation into the tax dollars paid for ghost workers.  

In awarding the 2021 Goldsmith Prize to the team behind “Mississippi’s Dangerous and Dysfunctional Penal System,” the judging committee noted their outstanding, deeply reported, data-backed storytelling, and the direct impact this series is having on public policy reforms in Mississippi. They celebrated how the reporters made policy failures real to readers by telling specific stories of individuals within the penal system. These stories gave faces and names to systemic failures, the reporting of which were backed up by cutting edge data journalism and dogged shoe-leather reporting. The series brings readers an understanding of what it’s like to be inside Mississippi’s troubled penal system. One judge noted that this series “shows in visceral terms why you can’t get ahead in a system like this.” 

The Goldsmith Awards ceremony tonight also honored Stephen Bates and John Maxwell Hamilton with Goldsmith Book Prizes and Stephen Engelberg with the Goldsmith Career Award. You can watch a recording of the event below:

Congratulations to the winners, as well as this year’s five Investigative Reporting Prize finalists:

American Injustice
Reuters Staff
As police violence and the failings of the U.S. justice system became front-page news across the country in 2020, Reuters reporters produced a series of data-driven investigative reports that included the first in-depth examination of qualified immunity; a revealing story on how police unions protect abusive officers; the first ever jail-by-jail accounting of inmate mortality in local lockups; and the first comprehensive, national accounting of judicial misconduct. This reporting led to increased awareness of the institutional failings of U.S. law enforcement, and was cited specifically in calls for reform of qualified immunity, and in cases against a corrupt judge and violent jail guards.

Indianapolis Star
Tony Cook, Emily Hopkins, and Tim Evans
Indianapolis Star reporters uncovered that government officials in Indiana took more than a billion dollars in federal funds earmarked for nursing home care and redirected it to hospital construction projects, while losing millions to fraud and padding the pockets of hospital executives. The state exploited loose rules and minimal oversight, and left Indiana with some of the worst nursing homes in America, just as the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Inadequate nursing home staffing across the state contributed to hundreds of deaths that likely could have been prevented with more resources. As a result of the IndyStar’s investigation, the state’s largest hospital system committed to a full review of its nursing home operations and the system’s longtime leader was forced to resign. At the state level, reforms have been proposed to increase nursing home funding, and tie Medicaid payments to quality of care.

Mauled: When Police Dogs Are Weapons
The Marshall Project,, IndyStar, and Invisible Institute
Abbie VanSickle, Challen Stephens, Ryan Martin, Dana Brozost-Kelleher, Maurice Chammah, Andrew Fan and Ellen Glover
In a year-long collaboration between regional and national outlets, reporters assembled the a first-of-its-kind database of incidents nationwide in which police dogs were used to attack suspects, resulting in serious injuries. They found that most victims were suspected of low-level non-violent crimes, and some were just bystanders. Injuries, both physical and psychological, were often severe and long-lasting. They resulted in disfigurement, reconstructive surgeries, permanent disability, and at least three deaths. This collaborative reporting project started with one journalist examining a local case in Alabama, and expanded nationally, joining forces with a similar investigation that had started in Indiana. In response to the series, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police announced it was tightening its policies for deploying police dogs; a national police think tank is drafting new guidelines on the use of K-9 units; and lawmakers in several states are using the reporting to push for new restrictions on the use of police dogs to bite people.

Restoring Health Care for Pacific Islanders After Decades of Unfilled Promises
Dan Diamond
Tens of thousands of Marshallese islanders fled their homes for the United States after extensive nuclear weapons testing in the 1940s and 50s washed their islands in dangerous radiation. Under an international agreement they were promised federal benefits, including Medicaid. But, in 1996 Congress stripped them of their Medicaid benefits, and the Marshallese – many of whom now work in factories and farms in America’s heartland – have been struggling to get healthcare ever since. Their community was ravaged by COVID-19, as POLITICO reporter Dan Diamond documented through first-hand visits and outdoor interviews. As a result of his reporting on the COVID-19 crisis and the decades of neglect that the Marshallese community had suffered at the hands of the federal government, Congress officially restored Marshallese islanders’ rights to Medicaid in December 2020.

Tampa Bay Times
Kathleen McGrory and Neil Bedi
The Tampa Bay Times discovered that the Pasco County, Florida sheriff’s office spent nearly a decade secretly collecting data and building an algorithm designed to predict which residents were likely to break the law. Using this algorithm, but often without probable cause or evidence of crimes, the department continuously monitored and harassed nearly 1,000 residents in the span of five years. The Tampa Bay Times’ interviews with former deputies discovered that the harassment tactics were designed to make these residents move out of the county or file a lawsuit. Some cases had far more dire consequences, including that of a teenager who died by suicide while under surveillance based on the sheriff’s algorithms. As a result of this reporting, state lawmakers have filed legislation to curb this style of policing in Florida, the chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor has called for a federal investigation and four residents who were targeted are suing the sheriff’s office with the help of a national non-profit legal firm.

To learn more about the Goldsmith Awards and this year’s winners and finalists visit Goldsmith

The Goldsmith Awards are funded by an annual gift from the Goldsmith Fund of the Greenfield Foundation.

The 2021 Goldsmith Investigative Reporting Prize judges were: Audra Burch, Sarah Cohen, Mike Greenfield, John Huey, Nancy Kaffer, Sacha Pfeiffer, Bina Venkataraman, Todd Wallack, and Setti Warren. Nancy Gibbs, Director of the Shorenstein Center, chaired the meeting. Judges recused themselves from voting on entries from their employers.