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Some of Our Best Work of 2021

From police use of force to life without parole to troubling prison conditions, our reporters told groundbreaking stories this year.

As the nation continued wrestling with both its racial reckoning and the pandemic this year, The Marshall Project dug deeper to expose systems that have resisted change. We investigated shooting deaths by U.S. Marshals, the use of Tasers and other police violence on teenagers across the country, the dangers of hogtie restraints and the high rate of police shootings in rural America. We examined previous accusations of use of force by former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin as he was tried for the murder of George Floyd. We also continued monitoring COVID-19 in prisons as the pandemic persisted, and provided information on vaccines directly to people who are incarcerated.

In 2021, our reporters discovered that almost every state was pocketing Social Security and other benefits owed to children in foster care for their own agency’s budgets. We delved into the national shortage of correctional officers, explained how that led to violence at Rikers Island in New York City and found federal data showing that police officers weren’t abandoning their jobs, as many people believed. We also did an in-depth examination of the excessive number of people serving life without parole, a growing number of whom are women.

We took time to examine the language we use to describe people who are currently or were formerly incarcerated, and we developed guidelines that do away with labels and focus on the individual. We shared those findings with other journalists, which sparked conversations in other newsrooms about how to refer to people who’ve been arrested or jailed.

This year and always, we remain committed to tenacious, objective and fair investigative reporting, to expose the failings of our criminal justice system and highlight potential reforms. As we take stock of our work in 2021 on a range of pressing topics, we want to express our gratitude for readers like you. Your contributions are vital to our journalism.

Use of force

Before Chauvin’s trial, reporters Jamiles Lartey and Abbie VanSickle examined a half dozen earlier cases in which Chauvin choked someone during an arrest. They interviewed three of those people and a witness to another choking incident; it was the first time they talked publicly about their experiences with Chauvin. “Looking back on Mr. Floyd, that could have been me,” Jimmy Bostic said.

Reporter Joseph Neff found that despite warnings from the Department of Justice going back to 1995, some police departments are still using hogtie restraints to subdue people. Neff and NBC reporter Emily Siegel identified at least 23 deaths in police custody involving hogtying since 2010. In a separate investigation with NBC, Neff, VanSickle and Simone Weichselbaum discovered that tens of thousands of people end up in emergency rooms because of violent encounters with police every year.

Weichselbaum’s investigation with The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network uncovered that, in recent years, U.S. Marshals and their partners have been chasing people who are wanted for local crimes, not federal ones. Between 2015 and 2020, at least 177 people were shot by a U.S. Marshal, Marshals task force officer or local officer assigned to help a task force with an arrest. That is more than some big city police departments like Houston and Philadelphia.

Alysia Santo, working with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and The New York Times, discovered that the Kentucky State Police had more fatal shootings in rural communities than any other law enforcement agency. Troopers there killed at least 41 people over a six-year period, 33 of them in rural areas, where there were few witnesses and officers weren’t wearing body cameras. No officer was prosecuted in those shootings.

Use of force cases can also involve emergency personnel. In a story also published with USA Today Network, Beth Schwartzapfel and Cary Aspinwall looked at the rare cases when paramedics face punishment for their role in violent police incidents.

Targeting teens

Violent police encounters don’t only happen with adults. Abbie VanSickle and data reporter Weihua Li dug through data from a half dozen large police departments and discovered that a striking number of Black girls encounter police violence. In New Orleans, for instance, every girl in use-of-force data was Black. In Alabama, Wendy Ruderman and VanSickle also explored how difficult it is to hold police accountable in these incidents and the lingering trauma caused to teens who’ve had violent encounters with officers. Both stories were published with USA Today Network, and the Alabama story was published with the Montgomery Advertiser and

Essential but forgotten workers

Guatemalan immigrants in New Bedford, Massachusetts, have proved essential to the city’s seafood industry. They pay taxes, and many of their children are American-born citizens. But these families were excluded from the federal benefits they need to survive economically during the pandemic because the parents are undocumented. In “Essential but Excluded,” reporters Julia Preston and Ariel Goodman tell the story of this tight-knit community, and how President Biden’s Build Back Better social policy could help them.

Examining the death penalty

The Marshall Project tracked every execution in the United States for more than five years, and editor Tom Meagher wrapped up our Next to Die project in early 2021. A national network of newsrooms helped us track executions during that time, recounting the cases of the 120 people who were put to death between August 2015 and February 2021.

There still are hundreds of people on death row, and we are continuing to cover them. One of those was Raymond Riles, who had been on Texas’ death row since 1976. In “He's Too Mentally Ill to Execute. Why Is He Still on Death Row After 45 Years?,” Keri Blakinger and Maurice Chammah wrote about his 45 years on death row, despite being ruled incompetent to stand trial — a fate that is not uncommon.

In a Life Inside essay, we also looked at the death penalty from the perspective of someone sentenced to die. Billie J. Allen, who was sentenced to federal death row in 1998 for armed robbery and murder, wrote about his feelings of guilt when he survived the 13 executions ordered by President Donald Trump before he left office.

COVID-19 in prisons

As part of our examination of how COVID-19 affected people in prisons, reporter Nicole Lewis began corresponding with several incarcerated people in March 2020 about their experiences. A year later, four of them shared their stories of survival, documenting the chaos, fear and isolation they’d experienced.

As COVID-19 vaccines started rolling out this spring, engagement reporter Ariel Goodman surveyed dozens of people in prison to find out their most common questions. She then put together a fact sheet for our News Inside publication that families could mail their loved ones in prison at no cost. The information was also translated into Spanish. We also dedicated an episode of Inside Story — our TV show created for incarcerated audiences — to demystifying COVID-19 vaccines behind bars.

Foster care spoils

Reporter Eli Hager became interested in a lawsuit in Alaska that challenged the state’s practice of taking federal benefits owed to children in foster care and using them for the agency’s budget. He and NPR reporter Joe Shapiro found that the problem went far beyond Alaska. Almost every state was taking Social Security benefits intended for foster youth who have disabilities or whose parents have died. Our story focused on a half dozen young people who’d lost money that could have helped them get established after they left foster care. A companion piece gave anyone who had been in foster care tips on how to find out if their state had taken money owed to them. Michelle Pitcher, Weihua Li and David Eads on our data team put together a searchable state-by-state database to allow anyone to check their state’s policies on using these benefits.

Life without parole

As the use of the death penalty has dwindled in the United States, life-without-parole sentences have risen dramatically. People facing those sentences, though, have fewer options for appeal and often have less competent counsel. Cary Aspinwall has delved into the consequences of these lifetime sentences this year, focusing on Texas, Florida and Louisiana. In partnership with the Dallas Morning News, she wrote about Shuranda Williams, who spent more than a year in the county jail without a bail hearing on charges that could put her in prison for life.

Aspinwall and data reporter Weihua Li found that Florida has far more people serving life without parole than any other state, and almost a quarter of the total nationwide. One reason is a two-strikes law that requires maximum punishment for people who commit a felony within three years of leaving prison, even for burglary or other nonviolent crimes. With our partners at the Tampa Bay Times, we told the stories of two Floridians caught up by this law.

Then in Louisiana, Aspinwall and Baton Rouge Advocate reporter Lea Skene looked at the increasing number of women serving life without parole and told the story of a young mother jailed for life after Hurricane Katrina when her baby died.

The Language Project

Soon after our founding, The Marshall Project began asking people who have been incarcerated what words they preferred to be used to describe them. But this year, we made concrete decisions about words we will and will not use. We came to understand that words such as “inmate” are not neutral, and subsequently developed a policy that uses people-first language. Editor Akiba Solomon explained our decision-making process in “What Words We Use — and Avoid — When Covering People and Incarceration.” We also published five essays that delved into these issues, including “I Am Not Your ‘Inmate’” by News Inside editor Lawrence Bartley and “People-First Language Matters. So Does the Rest of the Story.” by reporter Wilbert L. Cooper.

The launch of Inside Story

This year, we launched a video series called Inside Story for audiences both inside and outside of prison, beginning with “The Making of ‘Superpredators.’” Lawrence Bartley and Donald Washington Jr. create and edit video segments that delve into Marshall Project stories, interviewing our journalists and guests who talk about their experience with the criminal justice system. In the inaugural episode, Marshall Project president Carroll Bogert and others discuss the roots of the term “superpredator” and the role it played in dehumanizing young people involved in the justice system. Our videos are being shown in more than 200 prisons and jails, across 35 states, on facility televisions and tablets. You also can watch the episodes on YouTube, Vimeo and The Marshall Project's website.

Life after parole

In one of our Life Inside essays, reporter Lakeidra Chavis worked with her uncle, Alfonso Cobb, to tell the story of his release from parole after a decade. He had high hopes for his first year of real of freedom. He got a job, as he’d hoped. But he cut his hand working a saw in the hardwood factory this summer and is now spending weeks in physical therapy and watching his savings dwindle. Still, he is trying to “stay focused on being grateful for what I do have. It’s a blessing to just be out of prison and to be alive.”

A personal perspective

Investigative reporter Keri Blakinger started a regular feature called Inside Out in partnership with NBC News, delving into issues facing people who are or were incarcerated. Blakinger, who was formerly incarcerated, is able to provide an insider’s view of the criminal justice system. In her first six months, she wrote about formerly incarcerated people being banned from dating apps, haunted by online mugshots and excluded from jobs.

Using data to tell stories

We continued our focus on what underlying data can tell us about criminal justice and racial disparities in 2021. As other media reported that discouraged police officers were leaving their jobs en masse, data reporters Weihua Li and Ilica Mahajan discovered that federal data did not back that up. In “Police Say Demoralized Officers Are Quitting In Droves. Labor Data Says No,” co-published with Time, they reported that less than 1% of officers had left local departments in the previous year.

Working with The Upshot, senior data reporter Anna Flagg used a century-old report on physicians to bring perspective to the gap in mortality rates between Black and White Americans.

Mental health and incarceration

Reporter Christie Thompson dug into the conditional release program in California meant to transition people to independent living who have spent years in a psychiatric hospital. Called CONREP, the supervision system severely limits where people live, whether they can work and who they are allowed to see. CONREP is purposefully structured to help prevent violent relapses. But in “No Driving, No Working, No Dating,” co-published with the Los Angeles Times, Thompson found that many people spend years in limbo trying to work their way out of the program and back to independence.

Conditions in prisons and jails

Staff shortages are a perennial challenge for prisons, but the coronavirus pandemic has led to a staffing crisis. A team of reporters — Keri Blakinger, Jamiles Lartey, Beth Schwartzapfel and Christie Thompson — teamed up with The Associated Press to document the impact of the shortage in “As Corrections Officers Quit in Droves, Prisons Get Even More Dangerous.”

As New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex was overrun with violence, Beth Schwartzapfel and Lawrence Bartley talked to detainees, corrections officers, a jail monitor and the commissioner of the city’s Department of Correction. “Dispatch From Deadly Rikers Island: “It Looks Like a Slave Ship in There,” provided a harrowing picture of life in the jail.

The right to vote again

More than a dozen states expanded voting rights for people with felony convictions between 2016 and 2020. But reporters Nicole Lewis and Andrew R. Calderon found that only a fraction of the millions of people newly allowed to register to vote had made it onto voter rolls in four key states — Nevada, Kentucky, Iowa and New Jersey. No more than 1 in 4 formerly incarcerated people were registered in those states, mainly because they were unaware they could. A companion story explained how reporters and others could check on registration numbers in their states. Louisville Courier-Journal and USA Today Network co-published with us.

The saga of Badfish

In “A Bestselling Author Became Obsessed With Freeing a Man From Prison. It Nearly Ruined Her Life,” journalist Abbott Kahler unraveled how author Sara Gruen became consumed by her quest to help Charles Murdoch. It started with a letter from Murdoch, who signed off, “Badfish.” By 2021, Gruen was, “absolutely broke,” “seriously ill,” and her current work in progress is “years past deadline,” Kahler wrote. The article was co-published with New York Magazine.

Terri Troncale Twitter Email is partnership manager, working with media outlets to co-publish our work. She has worked as a reporter and editor for The Birmingham News and Orlando Sentinel and was Opinions editor for The Times-Picayune from 1996 to 2019. She was part of The Times-Picayune team awarded the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.