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Some of Our Best Work of 2020

From the sweeping impacts of COVID-19 to the protests against racial injustice, 2020 was a year like no other.

COVID-19 was the crucible that shaped our year, as everyone’s, in 2020. The pandemic caused us to shift plans, cancel travel, and work remotely. But it also inspired creativity and resulted in powerful and important journalism.

As coronavirus cases began to soar in March, our reporters immediately started reaching out to prison officials in all 50 states and the federal system to track the number of prisoners and staff who tested positive for the virus and those who died. The tracker, updated weekly, has become an essential resource for other journalists, scholars and even prisons themselves.

Beyond the pandemic, we collaborated with journalists in Alabama, Indiana and Chicago on a ground-breaking investigation into the devastating injuries caused by the misuse of police dogs nationwide. Our year-long reporting led us into this hidden world, where maulings are common and oversight is rare.

This year’s national reckoning with American policing sparked protests in all 50 states and led to a surge of interest in The Marshall Project. Our reporters drew upon their expertise in covering policing to delve into the troubled history of the Minneapolis police department, show how excessive police force almost always turns peaceful protests violent, and explore the troubling origins of the "Thin Blue Line" flag.

More broadly, our reporters also delved into whether restorative justice can work in homicides, investigated the ongoing use of debtors’ prisons in Mississippi and revealed how some pediatricians trained to spot child abuse are wrongly accusing families.

We remain committed to tenacious and fair investigative reporting to expose the failings of our criminal justice system and highlight potential reforms. As we take stock of our work this year, we want to express our gratitude for readers like you. Your contributions make this vital journalism possible.

When police violence is a dog bite

Our series, “Mauled: When Police Dogs Are Weapons,” brought together The Marshall Project, AL.com, IndyStar and the Invisible Institute to investigate police dog bites, the grievous wounds they inflict, and the challenge of holding anyone accountable. A team of reporters, led by Abbie Van Sickle, built a nationwide database of more than 150 severe incidents. We explored how most victims of dog bites were accused of minor offenses; some were even innocent bystanders, like the Washington, D.C., woman attacked by a K-9 unit while out for a walk with her own dog. We examined a case of a man in Montgomery, Ala., who died in 2018 when a police dog bit down on his groin and wouldn’t let go; the story of a single police dog in Talladega, Ala., that sent at least nine victims to the hospital during a tumultuous year; and the Indianapolis Police Department, which has the worst dog-bite rate among the nation’s 20 largest cities. Within days of the publication of our first story, Indianapolis police announced a new policy to limit the use of dogs and Washington State may become the first state to restrict them. Co-published with AL.com, IndyStar, the USA Today Network and The Invisible Institute

Tracking COVID-19 in U.S. prisons

The Marshall Project was among the first to warn of the looming danger that COVID-19 posed to people living and working in America’s prisons and jails. With reporting led by Katie Park and Tom Meagher and graphics by Park and Gabe Isman, we created a tracker updated weekly. “A State-by-State Look at Coronavirus in Prisons” provides the most comprehensive look at the impact of COVID-19 inside U.S. prisons and is a go-to resource for other media, policy analysts and members of Congress. Co-published with The Associated Press

The impact of COVID-19 on criminal justice

We tapped into our reporters’ expertise to write groundbreaking stories on the juvenile justice system, court proceedings, policing, juries and conditions inside prisons. Keri Blakinger and Beth Schwartzapfel explained how rules banning hand sanitizer and the impossibility of social distancing made COVID-19 a special hazard in prisons and jails. Eli Hager found that juvenile detention facilities reverted to long-abandoned tactics during the pandemic that put young people at great risk. Through record requests to prison systems nationwide, Maurice Chammah and Tom Meagher found that infection and death rates were far higher among Black people. Co-published with USA Today

What 2020 exposed about policing

After George Floyd died at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, Jamiles Lartey and Simone Weichselbaum quickly analyzed police reform efforts in the city and across Minnesota to discover why change there had stalled. They then delved into what police are thinking when routine arrests turn violent. Weichselbaum and reporter Nicole Lewis looked at what might be accomplished by defunding police and investing in public health and other social services. With protests continuing, Maurice Chammah and Cary Aspinwall explained the background, and controversy, surrounding the pro-police “Thin Blue Line” American flag. Alysia Santo examined how a controversial diagnosis called “excited delirium” related to Floyd’s death. With intensifying calls for an arrest of the police who killed Breonna Taylor, Lartey untangled the legal doctrine that posed barriers to arrests. Stories co-published with multiple news organizations, including The Guardian, Slate, The Daily Beast, USA Today, NJ.com and Politico

Mismanagement, exploitation in prisons

Reporters interviewed more than 100 people serving or working in federal prisons to document the missteps that led to an explosion of COVID-19 infections. Joseph Neff exposed how North Carolina prisons—despite being on lockdown—were still allowing hundreds of incarcerated people to work for local industries such as chicken-processing plants, potentially bringing the virus back with them. The state then shut the program down. Keri Blakinger’s story on how Texas prison meals had become even more disgusting than usual prompted local lawmakers to reach out to officials, leading to a dramatic improvement in the quality of the food. We documented that 98 percent of terminally ill prisoners were denied compassionate release, despite their high risk of COVID complications. Stories co-published with multiple news organizations, including VICE News, NBC News, The Associated Press, Charlotte Observer, Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News

Mississippi’s troubled prison system

We examined a prison system in crisis in Mississippi.

In partnership with Mississippi Today, we revealed that the state of Mississippi confines people with felony convictions to prison-like “restitution centers” where they are forced to work low-wage jobs for private employers while they pay off fines, court fees and restitution. We also found that most of the people held at the restitution centers were low-level offenders and that a disproportionate number were Black. Reaction was swift. Several lawmakers filed legislation in 2020 to eliminate the restitution centers. That push is expected to continue in 2021.

Five prisoners in Mississippi were killed by other prisoners in the first week of 2020. The state’s prisons are regarded as some of the most violent in the United States. Reporters Alysia Santo and Joseph Neff revealed in “Mississippi Prisons: No One’s Safe, Not Even the Guards” that half of all correctional-officer jobs in Mississippi’s state-run prisons are empty. In a second investigation this year, they found that Mississippi officials are allowing a private prison operator to keep staffing low with no consequences. Days after that story was published, the state’s auditor said his office has begun an investigation “based on some of the facts we saw in your report.”

Co-published with Mississippi Today, the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, the Clarion-Ledger and USA Today Network

Can restorative justice work in homicides?

“Restorative justice,” which brings perpetrators and victims together to talk about how to remedy a crime, is mostly used for nonviolent offenses. But Jacksonville, Florida, prosecutor Melissa Nelson has attempted it in several first-degree murder cases in exchange for reduced punishment. “They Agreed to Meet Their Mother’s Killer. Then Tragedy Struck Again.” is reporter Eli Hager’s gripping narrative exploring whether this more humane form of justice can work in homicide cases. If restorative justice goes wrong, can it compound the hurt of the original crime for the victim’s family? And if perpetrators are so traumatized by a lifetime of poverty, abuse, and racism, will conversations with their victims repair their own pain? Co-published with The Atlantic

When child abuse is misdiagnosed

Pediatricians trained in diagnosing child abuse are supposed to protect children who are being mistreated. But there is little oversight, and some doctors are allowed to wield unchecked power over whether a child is removed from its family. Reporter Stephanie Clifford with data reporter Weihua Li examined the flaws in this medical specialty and the impact on two families whose lives were upended by an incorrect diagnosis of child abuse. Co-published with The Atlantic

The trauma of short stays in foster care

Every year, an average of nearly 17,000 children are removed from their families and briefly placed in foster care, according to a Marshall Project analysis of federal Department of Health and Human Services records over the past decade. “Short-stay” foster care placements appear to happen most often in high-poverty areas where law enforcement officials are authorized to remove children without a court order. Our analysis found that New Mexico was the worst offender. Reporter Eli Hager examined the traumatic impact on children and a new strategy to reduce the number of short stays in Albuquerque. Co-published with Searchlight New Mexico

Exposing unsafe practices at local jails

As Maurice Chammah researched U.S. jails, he encountered reports of incarcerated people who died after being strapped to a “restraint” chair. He uncovered the stories of men who had been strapped to a restraint chair in the Wayne County, Missouri, jail — including Stacie Black, who spent 28 days in the chair following a suicide attempt. Chammah then investigated the death of Billy Ames, who was held in a restraint chair as he overdosed on methamphetamine in the St. Francois County, Missouri, jail. In Texas, he found Dalila Reynoso, an advocate for prisoners who has prodded Sheriff Larry Smith to improve conditions at the Smith County Jail. “At a local level there is so much power … you need advocates willing to have uncomfortable conversations with elected officials,” she said. Co-published with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Riverfront Times, KSDK-TV, NBC News and KETK-TV

The Zo

In 2017, a thesis by Yale senior Patrick Doolittle was sent to Marshall Project founding editor-in-chief Bill Keller. Keller at first wasn’t sure what we could do with a 96-page academic paper. But staff discussions landed on an inventive idea: Make it an animated video. Illustrator Molly Crabapple and actor Michael K. Williams came on board. And in 2020 we were proud to publish three animated episodes bringing Doolittle’s words to life. Co-published with Topic

Using data to tell stories

Understanding the data around the COVID-19 pandemic can be daunting. But senior data reporter Anna Flagg turned a statistical model on how COVID-19 could impact jails into digestible graphics showing what jails could do to minimize the spread of the virus. Flagg and reporter Joseph Neff showed how the 200,000 people flowing in and out of jails every week could worsen COVID-19’s spread. To measure the effect of President Donald Trump’s border policies on children, she and data reporter Andrew Calderon analyzed almost 500,000 detentions. They found that many children were held longer than the 72-hour limit set by legislation and courts. And data reporting fellow Weihua Li with Vox combed through crime statistics, media reports, public opinion polls, and stats on policing and jail populations, showing the nuances behind Trump’s claim that crime was rising in cities. Co-published with FiveThirtyEight, The New York Times’ Upshot and Vox

What it’s like to be pregnant in prison

Tutwiler, a short documentary by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Marshall Project reporter Alysia Santo, examines the heartache and uncertainty faced by expectant mothers at a notorious women’s prison in Alabama. The mothers have only 24 hours with their newborns before returning to prison. The film had its broadcast premiere on America ReFramed in May. Co-produced with FRONTLINE (PBS)

Documentary story-telling

A mother of five was displaced during the worst of the pandemic in New Jersey, her husband detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and her mother-in-law sick with the virus. Immigrants from India, Haiti, Guatemala and El Salvador were deported by ICE and tested positive for COVID-19 soon after. The detention centers were “like a time bomb,” one detainee said. The families of three Muslim college students in Chapel Hill are still grieving their deaths five years later. Police said they died because of a parking dispute, but family members believe it was a hate crime. In 2020, Emily Kassie told their stories in short, powerful documentaries. Co-produced with Time, FRONTLINE and The New York Times

The survey project

This year, The Marshall Project partnered with Slate for a first-of-its-kind political survey of prisons and jails across the United States. Led by Nicole Lewis, Lawrence Bartley, and Anna Flagg, we used our print publication News Inside to ask thousands of incarcerated people their opinions on criminal justice reform, their party affiliation and who they might choose as president. In a second survey, people incarcerated in a dozen states let us know what they think about defunding the police and how social services might have helped them. We also analyzed efforts to get ballots to more of the 745,000 people in local jails, who haven’t lost their right to cast a ballot. Co-published with Slate

Criminal justice and the election

Criminal justice and incarceration were vital issues in the 2020 election season, especially after the wave of Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd. The Marshall Project analyzed hundreds of thousands of political campaign advertisements on Facebook from December 2019 to September 2020. The data showed that the $6.6 million President Trump spent on crime and policing ads on Facebook almost all came after Floyd’s death. Democrat Joe Biden spent nothing on criminal justice ads on Facebook until late August, focusing instead on COVID-19 and economic recovery. Christie Thompson examined how some formerly incarcerated people ran for office and connected with voters. Co-published with Mother Jones and Slate

News for people who are incarcerated

Our News Inside print publication for people in prisons and jails across the United States continued to grow in its second year, with five editions focusing on the 2020 election, COVID-19 and other important issues. In August, editor Lawrence Bartley wrote about the pleas from incarcerated people for more information. “Send me all the free news you can. Please, I need it all,” said one writer incarcerated in Pennsylvania.

A look at Life Inside

Our Life Inside essays offer people a window into life inside prisons and jails. In a conversation with Marshall Project president Carroll Bogert, Derrick Hardaway described what it was like to be labeled by the media as a “superpredator” at age 14. “I’m not a predator. I was a kid who made a terrible decision.” In July, two days before the first federal execution in 17 years, Billie J. Allen wrote about the fear of being next. “It comes out of nowhere when they take you out of your cell on death row and move you to the death watch range. “You get no warning, nothing,” he wrote. And Cary Johnson, a corrections officer in Michigan, told reporter Maurice Chammah about her fears of taking home COVID-19 to her family because it’s impossible to practice social distancing. Co-published with Bridge Magazine

Before you go...

Can you help us make a difference?

The Marshall Project produces journalism that makes an impact. Our investigation into violence using police dogs prompted departments from Indiana to Louisiana to change their policies. Thousands of cameras were installed in the infamous Attica prison after we revealed the extent of violent abuse by guards. Municipalities stopped charging parents for their kids’ incarceration because of our reporting. Supreme Court justices have cited us, along with incarcerated people acting as their own lawyers.

The type of reporting we practice takes persistence, skill and, above all, time, which is why we need your support. Donations from readers like you allow us to commit the time and attention needed to tell stories that are driving real change. We could not do it without you.

Please donate to The Marshall Project today. We’re extremely grateful to each and every donor who helps power our journalism. Your support goes a long way toward sustaining this important work.

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