Reporters Anna Wolfe and Michelle Liu of Mississippi Today have been awarded the February Sidney Award for “Think Debtors Prisons Are a Thing of the Past? Not in Mississippi.” Their year-long investigation, which includes data analysis by The Marshall Project's Andrew R. Calderon, reveals that Mississippi confines people with felony convictions to prison-like facilities known as “restitution centers” where they have to work low-wage jobs for private employers by day, and are sent to locked facilities at night, in order to pay off fines, court fees and restitution.
The 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.
Wolfe, Liu and Calderon were able to prove that the system of restitution ultimately penalizes the poorest residents of the poorest state in the country. Cliff Johnson, a law professor at the University of Mississippi who runs its justice center, said that, “Debtors prisons are an effective way of collecting money, as is kidnapping. But there are constitutional, public policy and moral barriers to such a regime.”
The Sidney Award is awarded to an outstanding piece of journalism that appeared in the prior month. It is run by the Sidney Hillman Foundation, which honors excellence in journalism in service of the common good, and upholds the legacy and vision of union pioneer and New Deal architect Sidney Hillman.