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Some of Our Best Work of 2019

Catch up on probing investigations, moving documentaries and the new print magazine that made our year.

The Marshall Project celebrated a number of milestones in 2019. We turned 5 years old. One of our classic stories was the basis for one of the most successful and critically acclaimed Netflix shows of the year. We launched a magazine—yes a real magazine printed on paper—for incarcerated readers that circulates in more than 325 prisons and jails in 30 states. All of this came as we continued to publish moving narrative longreads, immersive multimedia storytelling, documentaries and the kind of investigations that change minds and have an impact.

Five years on, we continue to believe that the only way to fix our criminal justice system is to expose the many ways in which it fails, through fearless and fair investigative reporting. Ultimately, we couldn’t have done all of this work this year without the support of readers like you. As we review some of our favorite work of the year, remember that your contributions help make this happen and will enable us to publish even more important stories in the year ahead. So stick with us in 2020, and thank you.

In their own words

This year, we released two new installments in our film series, “We Are Witnesses.” The first focused on what it means to migrate to the United States, and how our immigration policies affect people who want to come here as well as those tasked with enforcing the law. In the second edition, which focused on tales of crime and justice in Chicago, we heard the stories of parents, victims, police, community activists and formerly incarcerated people. It serves as a reminder of the devastation wrought by crime and the justice system itself. Co-published with Newsy, WBEZ, The Chicago Reader and Univision Chicago

No medicine for the addicted

When people who are being treated for addictions go to jail, they very often lose access to the medications they’ve been prescribed for treatment, like buprenorphine or methadone. But as Beth Schwartzapfel wrote, some people have sued and won, arguing their addictions are disabilities and to deny them their medication is a violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. These cases have prompted sheriffs and even the U.S. Justice Department to start to rethink how they treat people with addictions in jail.

Not in our boroughs

Closing New York City’s troubled Rikers Island jail complex seemed like a popular decision, until city officials announced what would replace it: new jails in four boroughs. Maurice Chammah chronicled the furor that erupted in several communities chosen to host the new facilities. And he brought readers into the deliberations among officials tasked with planning the future of pretrial detention in the city. Co-published with The New Yorker

For incarcerated readers

The Marshall Project has always been a digital publication, making it difficult to access by those most affected by the issues we cover: incarcerated people who have extremely restricted access to the internet. This year, with that in mind, Lawrence Bartley created News Inside, a print publication circulated for free in jails and prisons across the country.

Worse than prison

When California passed a series of criminal justice reforms, it was hailed as a national leader in reducing the number of people in prison. But Abbie VanSickle and Manuel Villa found that after several years the reforms have had unexpected consequences. Local jails, often unequipped to hold people for years at a time or to offer treatment and services, have seen their populations balloon and conditions deteriorate. In some counties, people would rather be sentenced to state prison to avoid the overcrowded jails. Co-published with the Los Angeles Times

Real stories from real people

The man who killed his wife and now wants to end domestic violence. A wake for an unknown prisoner. The nightmare of being shipped to a new prison across the country. Learning your mentor in prison is, in fact, your father. The violence and humiliation of showering in prison. Our weekly Life Inside column paints intimate narratives of people living and working in the criminal justice system. And this year we turned it into a weekly newsletter. Subscribe here.

Haunted

Twenty-five years after an arrest was dismissed, a Louisiana man still gets picked up by the police. Eli Hager explains the toll that so-called “ghost warrants” exact from people who can’t get long-dead cases off the books in a system of paper records and bureaucratic malaise. Co-published with the Guardian

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Immigrants and crime

Many people who support closing our borders and deporting undocumented people argue that immigrants drive crime. But a pair of stories from Anna Flagg this year dispelled that myth. Through rigorous data analysis, these stories demonstrated that there is no connection between crime and the number of undocumented immigrants in a community and that deporting more people does not reduce crime. The pieces serve as a valuable corrective to misinformation so often employed in the public debate over immigration. Co-published with The New York Times’ Upshot

The veteran

John Phillips has spent 66 years in prison in North Carolina. Handed a life sentence at the age of 18, he now hobbles around a minimum security facility with a cane. Joseph Neff tells the story of the intellectually disabled man nicknamed “Peanut,” and how he fears that he might have to leave prison for the world outside. Co-published with the News & Observer

Paying for crimes

When teens are convicted of crimes, they are often ordered to repay their victims. The problem, critics contend, is that few states cap the fines, saddling kids with large debts that last well into adulthood. Eli Hager wrote about how Maine became only the second state to allow courts to adjust fines for juveniles or to let them pay debts with service rather than cash. Supporters of the new law hope it will help teens move beyond their youthful crimes to better lives. Co-published with The Washington Post

Who’s in charge?

Many prisons struggle to attract enough staff to prevent violence and keep order. In Mississippi, Joseph Neff and Alysia Santo found one where workers were so taxed, they all but gave up trying. In an internal audit of the privately run Wilkinson County Correctional Facility, the warden acknowledged he let gangs have the run of the prison in hopes they would keep the peace. The result was rampant violence and the stabbing death of a newly transferred prisoner. Co-published with the USA Today Network, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting

Making matters worse

The Trump administration has tried many ways to deport more people faster. But as Julia Preston and Andrew R. Calderon showed, nearly every one of those policy changes has failed, and many have had the opposite effect, slowing down the immigration courts and leaving people living for years with fear and uncertainty as they wait for resolution. Co-published with Politico

Will they vote?

Several states in recent years have passed measures to permit formerly incarcerated people to vote again. Nicole Lewis spent time with five of the nearly 37,000 people in Louisiana who got back their right to vote. The question for some of them was not always how they’ll vote, but whether they will, as they struggle to regain their independence, to remain employed and to stay out of jail. For others, Election Day couldn’t come soon enough. Co-published with Mother Jones and the Daily Advertiser in Lafayette

Inconceivable

This fall, Netflix debuted its limited series, “Unbelievable,” about a young woman who reports being raped by a burglar only to have the police call her credibility into question. The show is based on “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” the 2015 Marshall Project/ProPublica story that won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. In an essay reflecting on the Netflix series, reporters Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller note that how police treated “Marie” is sadly still too common in rape cases. Co-published with ProPublica

The cost of hope

When your child goes to prison, you’ll do anything you can to try to help them. So when families met a consultant who said he could help their children get out early, they were willing to pay, whatever the cost. In this gripping narrative, Christie Thompson tells the tale of Peter Candlewood and how he made millions by selling families a dream that turned into a nightmare. Co-published with Amazon Original Stories

52,000 and counting

We’ve all seen the headlines about migrants held in detention facilities and children being taken from their parents at the border. But how did it come to this? In this immersive multimedia story, Emily Kassie explains how, in the span of 40 years, the United States built the largest immigrant detention system in the world. Co-published with The Guardian

Where the Dems stand

The Marshall Project has closely watched how the Democrats vying to run against President Trump in 2020 have been talking about criminal justice. We presented a candidates forum, hosted in a former Pennsylvania prison, where they were questioned by formerly incarcerated people. And our Katie Park and Jamiles Lartey have begun tracking the candidates’ positions on federal and local criminal justice concerns, including clemency, private prisons, police use of force and mandatory minimum sentences. We’ll continue to update the tracker with new issues and will monitor when candidates withdraw from the race until there’s a single Democratic nominee.

The difference a prosecutor can make

Across the country, a wave of “progressive prosecutors” have been elected based on promises to take fewer people to court, to reduce sentences and to keep more people from being sent to prison. Because prosecutors’ offices are notoriously opaque, there have been few opportunities to evaluate what really happens when a progressive prosecutor gets elected. Matt Daniels wanted to answer that question when he examined years of data from the Cook County, Illinois, State’s Attorney’s Office. His analysis found that the policies enacted by reformer Kim Foxx have led to a change in how front-line prosecutors do business in Chicago, and thousands of people have avoided jail as a result. Co-published with the Pudding and the Chicago Reporter

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Feds, go home

There are hundreds of joint task forces across the country that bring together federal and local law enforcement agencies on missions such as fighting drug dealers or tracking potential terrorists. But as Simone Weichselbaum reported, several big cities have abandoned these task forces. That’s because their participation requires that they forego the transparency and accountability—think body cameras and use of force standards—that reformers have been trying to bring to police departments, which has resulted in eroded trust in their communities, and sometimes, deadly consequences. Co-published with Vice and USA Today

A sigh of release

After Oklahoma’s legislature passed a bill making changes to sentences for low-level misdemeanors retroactive, the state released more than 500 people from its prisons. Cary Aspinwall spent time with a group of women on their last day in Eddie Warrior Correctional Center before their release. They were excited, grateful and relieved to be going home years earlier than they had ever expected. Co-published with The Frontier and The Guardian

The ignored hate crime

In many parts of the country, police do a notoriously bad job of collecting data on hate crimes in their communities. But as Weihua Li reported, the numbers are particularly bad for gender-based crimes. The reasons for such inadequate data in these cases include uneven state laws and the fact that many police don’t ask victims the right questions in the first place.

The lasting toll of prison violence

Each year, thousands of people are assaulted in federal prison, and when many return home, they bring deep emotional and physical wounds with them. For four years, Christie Thompson followed the story of Chuck Coma, who was nearly strangled to death in a federal prison in Pennsylvania. Now he is free but can’t live independently due to lingering damage from the attack. Coma’s experience sheds light on the far-reaching effects of prison violence—a battle being fought by an untold number across the country. Co-published with NPR and Mother Jones

Listening to the families

Discussions of criminal justice reform too often leave out a crucial voice: the families of the incarcerated. As the holidays approached, hundreds of families told us about their experiences staying in touch and visiting loved ones in prison. In a five-part series published with the New York Times’ Race/Related newsletter, Nicole Lewis and Beatrix Lockwood shared stories of the unforeseen costs of incarceration to families, the long distances families often must travel to remote prisons (with graphics by Katie Park), and the tribulations that come with trying to video chat with an incarcerated person. In the last two installments, one woman shares how she celebrates Christmas apart from her incarcerated husband, and Celina Fang tells the story of a family who trekked to a pre-holidays visit to see a loved one in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Co-published with The New York Times Race/Related