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Filed 6:00 a.m.
12.22.2022
Analysis

Some of Our Best Work of 2022

From coverage of prison violence and abuses in a juvenile lockup to investigations by our new Cleveland team, our reporters told stories that made a difference.

Midterm elections, reproductive rights and immigration policy were major national stories in 2022. With that as the backdrop, The Marshall Project scrutinized prosecutions of pregnant women with addictions; investigated Texas’ costly and politically-hyped border initiative; and partnered with researchers on a groundbreaking national survey of sheriffs’ attitudes on immigration, race and the sanctity of the Constitution.

Our reporters shined a light on abuses in a Louisiana juvenile detention facility and the use of felony murder laws to sentence people to life without parole even when they didn’t intend to harm anyone. The data team documented gaping holes in FBI crime data and examined how much federal COVID relief money was spent on local policing budgets rather than other services.

As a sign of our continued commitment to impactful reporting, we launched The Marshall Project’s first local news operation in Cleveland with a team of award-winning journalists with deep ties to the community. They are led by veteran journalists Jim Crutchfield, editor-in-chief of the Cleveland newsroom, and Marlon Walker, managing editor, local.

As always, The Marshall Project remains committed to rigorous, objective and fair investigative reporting, to exposing the failings of the U.S. criminal justice system and drawing attention to potential reforms. As we take stock of our work in 2022, we want to express our gratitude for readers like you. Your contributions are vital to our journalism.

The power of policing

Sheriffs are power brokers in their communities, but how much do constituents know about their views? Reporter Maurice Chammah teamed up with two leading scholars to survey more than 500 sheriffs. Data reporters Katie Park and Anastasia Valeeva, led by data editor David Eads, dissected the survey results, finding that sheriffs are far more conservative than Americans as a whole and that many believe their power supersedes the governor or president. The survey also showed that sheriffs tend to view the 2020 protests over the police murder of George Floyd as biased against law enforcement, although many are open to some reforms.

In “Anatomy of a Murder Confession,” Chammah also scrutinized the career of Texas Ranger James Holland, who is legendary for getting suspects to admit guilt using hypnosis, hypothetical descriptions of crimes and other questionable approaches.

Reporter Christie Thompson told the story of Armando Navejas, a 70-year-old El Paso man with Parkinson’s disease and dementia who wandered away from home and died after police fired a stun gun at his back. “As Police Arrest More Seniors, Those With Dementia Face Deadly Consequences” documented the increasing number of arrests of people age 65 and older and the deadly consequences for some with dementia.

In Houston, reporter Keri Blakinger teamed up with New York Times reporter David Fahrenthold to reveal that the local Crime Stoppers had shifted from non-partisanship to open criticism of what it called activist judges. The reporters found that message was tied into the group’s increased funding from state grants backed by the governor.

The Marshall Project also partnered with NPR on Embedded: Changing the Police, a five-part podcast examining whether reform efforts in the Yonkers, New York, police department are working. Reporter Wilbert L. Cooper explored why there are so few officers of color on the Yonkers police force, and Thompson looked at the impact of police answering mental health calls.

Youth in solitary

After Louisiana officials quietly opened a high-security juvenile lockup in mid-2021, Marshall Project reporter Beth Schwartzapfel along with NBC News’ Erin Einhorn and ProPublica’s Annie Waldman started looking into whether the young people there were getting educational and other services they were supposed to get. In “‘No Light. No Nothing.’ Inside Louisiana’s Harshest Juvenile Lockup,” we revealed that not only had the teens been held there for months without schooling, they were locked in their cells for at least 23 hours a day for weeks on end. Our reporting prompted the state legislature to pass a law restricting the use of solitary confinement for youth.

Thomson federal prison: ‘One of the deadliest’

The new federal prison at Thomson, Illinois, was supposed to make the system safer. But reporter Christie Thompson and NPR reporter Joe Shapiro found that it has quickly become one of the deadliest federal lockups. Our reporting exposed how men housed at Thomson prison lived under the threat of violence from cellmates, as well as brutality at the hands of staff. At least five men have been killed since 2019, and many more reported being shackled in cuffs so tight they left scars, or being chained by each limb to a bed for hours. The story has already had a national impact. Two days after our investigation was published, U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth and U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos sent a letter to the Justice Department’s Inspector General calling for an immediate federal investigation into Thomson penitentiary, based on our reporting. The inspector general announced on June 9 they were officially opening an investigation.

Reporting on Cleveland

We launched our first-ever local reporting team in Cleveland in June, and our work there is already having an impact. Reporters Mark Puente and Cid Standifer delved into the $60 million spent on a police consent decree in Cleveland, and Puente and Rachel Dissell examined the secrecy around police cameras in the city. Puente, Standifer and Stan Donaldson Jr. also investigated the village of Bratenahl’s pattern of ticketing mostly Black drivers from Cleveland. In the wake of the Bratenahl investigation, state Rep. Juanita Brent plans to introduce legislation requiring police agencies to record race data when making traffic stops. “The only way we can make systemic change (in policing) is with the data,” she said.

We began our in-depth reporting in Cleveland before we had a local newsroom there. Over the past year, Dissell, Ilica Mahajan, Anna Flagg and Wesley Lowery took a hard look at the Cuyahoga County courts — who is running them and who is cycling through them. Our “Testify” project examined six years of court data and found that Black residents are arrested and sent to prison at disproportionate rates. We also combed tens of thousands of Cuyahoga County court records and found that although the vast majority of defendants have a previous charge on their record, most of them aren’t for serious violent offenses.

In addition, Cleveland outreach manager Louis Fields is in charge of getting our journalism into Ohio’s prisons and jails.

Aggressive prosecutions

In an investigation with The Frontier and AL.com, reporters Cary Aspinwall and Andrew Rodriguez Calderón found that more than 50 women have been prosecuted for child neglect or manslaughter in the United States since 1999 because they tested positive for drug use after a miscarriage or stillbirth. Most of the cases were in Alabama, South Carolina and Oklahoma, with a scattering in nine other states where prosecutors have embraced some form of “fetal personhood” in bringing criminal charges after miscarriage or stillbirth. Many of the women, who are mostly poor and struggling with addiction, faced lengthy prison sentences. The medical community views these cases as counter-productive, but legal experts expect the practice to spread after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The story was co-edited and published in partnership with The Washington Post.

In “Fetterman and Oz Battle Over Pennsylvania’s Felony Murder Law,” Aspinwall and reporter Abbie VanSickle examined the use of felony murder laws in Pennsylvania to sentence people to life without parole even if they didn’t fire a weapon or mean to kill anyone. Our reporting found racial inequities in the application of the law, which allows no sentencing leeway. Of the more than 1,100 people in the state serving life sentences under the law, nearly 70% of them are Black in a state with about 12% Black residents.

Patrolling the border

Led first by Gov. Rick Perry and now by Gov. Greg Abbott, Texas has spent billions of dollars on a series of border initiatives since 2005, the latest called Operation Lone Star. The Marshall Project’s Andrew Rodriguez Calderón, ProPublica’s Lomi Kriel and Perla Trevizo with The Texas Tribune investigated how the money has been used and the veracity of claims about the effectiveness of Operation Lone Star. Our reporting in

“Texans Spend Billions on Border Operations. What Do They Get in Return?” found that the numbers the state used to demonstrate the operation’s success included arrests that had nothing to do with the border or immigration. State officials also have misstated or failed to provide verification for claims they’ve made about arrests along the border. And they couldn’t provide a breakdown of state-led operations since 2005, their duration, cost to taxpayers or achievements.

“No Place for A Child,” a broader look at operations along the U.S. border with Mexico by reporters Julia Preston and Anna Flagg, found that one of every three people held in a Border Patrol facility since early 2017 was a minor. That is a much bigger share than had been reported before. More than 220,000 of the 650,000 children under age 18 detained between February 2017 and June 2021 were held for longer than 72 hours, which is the limit defined by courts and statute. Advocates and families leaving border facilities described miserable overall conditions, including stale food, a lack of basic medical care or even dry clothes.

Using data to tell stories

When the FBI replaced its century-old system for collecting crime data in 2021, data reporter Weihua Li knew there would be glitches. Her examination of the latest FBI data this year found massive gaps in crime stats when 7,000 law enforcement agencies failed to switch to the new system. That’s nearly 40% of agencies nationwide. The lack of accurate crime data has broad ramifications for communities, as our partners at Axios documented in 20 cities in their reporting network. Li, Andrew Rodriguez Calderón and David Eads also created a searchable database allowing readers to see how many police departments in their state had submitted crime data and what their local agency had done.

In “Rifles, Tasers and Jails: How Cities and States Spent Billions of COVID-19 Relief,” Li, Anastasia Valeeva and Susie Cagle dug into data on the American Rescue Plan Act and found that billions of dollars in COVID relief money had gone to local law enforcement, corrections and courts. The money went to salaries and equipment, including tasers, rifles, cars and shooting ranges. The Marshall Project found that five municipalities used funding to purchase armored vehicles. Again, Axios partnered with us to examine how prioritizing police rather than other services affected local communities.

Looking at life inside prisons

Reporter Beth Schwartzapfel and Lawrence Bartley, publisher of The Marshall Project Inside, corresponded with dozens of incarcerated people in 2022 about the money they make in prison, how they spend it and how they are able to cover their basic needs and comforts. “Prison Money Diaries: What People Really Make (and Spend) Behind Bars” was a revealing look at the underground prison economy.

Four Philadelphia mothers whose sons were murdered shared the stories of their grief with reporter Lakeidra Chavis. Dr. Dorothy Johnson-Speight, a licensed family therapist and founder of the Mothers In Charge support group, said: “I had experience with grief and pain: Before Khaaliq was killed, I lost my mom, my dad, my only sibling, and a daughter to an illness. But none of that compared to his death. Murder complicates the mourning process.” The four women were featured in “Heaven: Can You Hear Me?,” a short documentary about grief and recovery that aired on the World Channel and PBS.

In “I Had a High-Risk Pregnancy in Jail — Then I Gave Birth in Chains,” Rebecca Figueroa, a 38-year-old mother and college student, shared her frightening experience of going through a high-risk pregnancy and delivering her daughter while jailed on Long Island. The charges against her were eventually dropped and the judge apologized. Carla Canning, a Tow audience engagement fellow at The Marshall Project, worked on the essay with Figueroa.

Death sentences

Reporters Maurice Chammah and Keri Blakinger continued our longtime coverage of the death penalty, examining the debate around capital punishment and who is facing execution. “They Went to Prison as Kids. Now They’re on Death Row” looked at the role of juvenile institutions on later criminal behavior among people sentenced to death. Blakinger and Chammah also wrote about a psychiatrist whose testimony helped put Ramiro Gonzales on death row, but later changed his mind about whether Gonzales was a danger to society. In “How Melissa Lucio Went From Abuse Survivor to Death Row,” Chammah analyzed the growing understanding that trauma victims are more likely to take responsibility for crimes they didn’t commit.

Prison town royalty

Keri Blakinger explored the outsized impact of the prison economy on Texas communities in “The Rise and Fall of a Prison Town Queen,” She told the story through Melinda Brewer, who briefly ruled as the First Lady of Huntsville, Texas, a kingdom one local described as a “cross between Game of Thrones and a Walmart.” Brewer worked her way up to maintenance and construction manager for 100 state prisons. When her husband became regional director of the seven prisons in the Huntsville area, she became local royalty. But it all fell apart because of a family feud over drugs, money and fried fish.

The uneasy state of prisons and jails

For more than a decade, the Texas prison system has failed to address state fire inspectors’ concerns about inadequate alarm systems. Without sprinklers or functioning alarms, Keri Blakinger reported in “Burned to Death in a Prison Cell,” fires in some housing areas have burned for hours. In 2022, Jacinto De La Garza and Damien Bryant died six months apart in cell fires. Blakinger examined how their deaths might have been prevented.

In Mississippi, our investigation into prison operations over the past several years led the state auditor to order Management & Training Corporation to repay nearly $2 million for improper billing for “ghost workers.” Reporters Joseph Neff and Alysia Santo had reported in 2020 that MTC collected millions of dollars in Mississippi by charging the corrections department for vacant security positions the company was required to fill.

Felony disenfranchisement

Roughly 20 states have passed laws expanding voting rights for people on probation or parole or people who have completed a sentence for a felony conviction. But that hasn’t necessarily made it easier for them to vote. After formerly incarcerated people were arrested in August in Florida on voting fraud charges stemming from the 2020 election, Nicole Lewis and Alexandra Arriaga looked at the chilling effect on formerly incarcerated voters in other states. In particular, voting advocates in Alabama and Georgia saw a ripple effect.

Earlier in the year, Arriaga, Ilica Mahajan, Andrew Rodriguez Calderón and Weihua Li revealed that state paperwork given to people leaving prison in Colorado wrongly led them to believe anyone on parole was forbidden to vote. We also produced a downloadable explainer on how they could register.

Expanding newsletters and audience

In our ongoing effort to make sure we give readers the most in-depth coverage of criminal justice possible, we revised Closing Argument, our weekly wrap-up newsletter. Instead of a list of the week’s best stories from us and others around the country, reporter Jamiles Lartey is digging into a single issue. He finds the most pertinent new stories and analysis to illuminate the issue of the week. To launch our new Closing Argument in July, he did a deep dive into the legal ramifications of the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade. A few weeks later, he looked at how policing has and hasn’t changed since the murder of George Floyd in 2020. He also teamed up with data reporter Weihua Li to look at the impossibility of knowing where crime stands with ongoing gaps in the FBI’s crime data. Then, reporter Daphne Duret explored what San Francisco’s killer robot debate says about policing.

Also this year, The Marshall Project hired Rachel Kincaid as our first newsletter manager. Kincaid has enriched our email outreach to readers, creating a newsletter for our new Cleveland newsroom, managing more than a half dozen regular newsletters and providing readers and donors behind-the-scenes looks at our investigatory projects.

Ashley Dye also joined our news team in 2022 as audience engagement manager. They energized our Instagram and Twitter accounts, increased our presence on Reddit and worked with our publishing partners on creative social media collaborations to reach a wider audience.

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.