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Analysis

Some of Our Best Work of 2023

In podcasts, broadcasts and narrative stories, we examined prison conditions, prosecutions of pregnant women, Dungeons & Dragons on death row, and more.

As the debate on reproductive rights swirled in 2023, and U.S. prison conditions continued to be criticized, The Marshall Project used newfound data and in-depth story-telling to illuminate those and other vital criminal justice issues.

We examined the spate of prosecutions of pregnant women in Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma and South Carolina and published first-person accounts of the difficulty of being pregnant in prison. Our reporters combed through New York prison disciplinary records, finding that misbehavior by guards is frequently covered up, allowing many officers to avoid punishment for abusing prisoners.

We brought our investigative work to new audiences, including incarcerated people, through podcasts and broadcast partnerships. We examined the murky world of parole and questioned methods used by Texas Rangers through two widely-heard podcasts, and launched a video series aimed at incarcerated audiences. We continued our commitment to narrative storytelling, describing how death row prisoners find connection through playing “Dungeons & Dragons,” and tracing the little-known “mitigation specialists” who attempt to save people from the death penalty.

As a sign of our continued commitment to enriching reporting on criminal justice, we announced the launch of The Marshall Project’s second local news operation. Reporters Caleb Bedillion and Daja Henry are based in Jackson, Mississippi, and will be guided by Senior Editor Paul D’Ambrosio and Marlon Walker, managing editor, local. As with our Cleveland, Ohio, team, they will delve into untold criminal justice stories in their community and collaborate with local news organizations to expose inequities in Mississippi’s legal system.

The Marshall Project, as always, remains committed to ground-breaking and fair investigative reporting, revealing the failings of the U.S. criminal justice system and drawing attention to potential reforms. As we look back at our work in 2023, we are truly grateful for readers like you. Your support is essential to our journalism.

Prison discipline

When New York repealed a law that kept secret the disciplinary records of prison guards in 2020, we were the first newsroom to successfully use the law to get the data. Reporters Alysia Santo and Joseph Neff and Senior Editor Tom Meagher combed through thousands of pages of court documents, arbitration and officer disciplinary records. Our two-year investigation, co-published by The New York Times, found it is routine for New York corrections officers to cover up the mistreatment of prisoners, making it difficult to hold anyone accountable.

In a subsequent investigation, Santo and Neff revealed that many guards dismissed for abusive behavior got their jobs back. Between 2010 and 2022, outside arbitrators reinstated three of every four guards fired for abuse or for covering it up, according to our review of 136 cases. The decisions heavily favored prison guards, even when there was strong evidence against them.

Pregnancy and prosecution

Reporter Cary Aspinwall, along with reporters from AL.com, Mississippi Today, The Frontier and the Post and Courier, investigated the use of child protection laws across the South to prosecute pregnant women accused of using drugs. In most states, a pregnant woman suspected of using drugs could be referred to a child welfare agency. But in some counties in Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma and South Carolina, these cases are being prosecuted — even if the baby is born healthy.

In addition to that reporting, we published a Life Inside series of first-person essays, as told to Engagement Editor Nicole Lewis, on what it is like to be pregnant or a new parent and be incarcerated or working in a prison. Victoria Lopez was one of those moms. A new law in Minnesota allowed Lopez to begin her sentence at home for a year to be with her newborn twins, but then she had to leave them to finish the seven-year term, and she worried about how that might hurt them.

Inside Story with VICE

As part of our mission to deliver news inside prisons, we collaborated with VICE News on a first-of-its-kind video series this year. The eight episodes of Inside Story, co-created by The Marshall Project’s Lawrence Bartley and Donald Washington Jr., brought accountability and investigative journalism on the criminal justice system to people behind bars. The TV magazine-style series profiled formerly incarcerated people who are now productive citizens on the outside, and included animations that provided perspective on how people’s lives are altered by the criminal justice system. The Inside Story series had more than a million combined views on YouTube and was distributed to roughly 750 prisons and jails via tablets accessible to incarcerated people and facilities’ closed-circuit television.

Thomson prison

Reporting over the past two years by The Marshall Project’s Christie Thompson and NPR reporter Joe Shapiro revealed dangerous conditions and several deaths in the high-security unit at Thomson federal prison in Illinois. Nine months after our first story, with pressure from members of Congress, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons closed the unit. But that wasn’t the end of the story. Thompson and Shapiro reported in November that 14 people incarcerated in the unit had sent a letter to the then-warden, who was trying to implement reforms, to warn him that corrections officers were urging them to harm him.

Podcasting

For the first time, The Marshall Project created and helped produce two podcast series in 2023: “Violation,” an in-depth look at the murder conviction of Jacob Wideman in Arizona, and “Just Say You’re Sorry,” an examination of the controversial investigative techniques of a former Texas ranger known for solving cold cases. Together, they have totaled around 1.9 million downloads. “Violation” included interviews by reporter Beth Schwartzapfel with both Wideman and his father, John Edgar Wideman, an acclaimed novelist and essayist, and others close to the case. It was created with WBUR in Boston. “Just Say You’re Sorry,” based on reporting by Maurice Chammah, was made in partnership with Sony Music Entertainment and Somethin’ Else.

Dungeons & Dragons on death row

Men imprisoned on Texas’ death row live in isolation, confined alone in small cells and rarely able to converse with other prisoners. They are allowed only one five-minute phone call every 90 days. But over more than three years of reporting, usually by letter or brief in-person visits, reporter Keri Blakinger discovered that these men had found a way to break up the loneliness of solitary confinement by playing clandestine games of Dungeons & Dragons. They relied on a variety of covert communications, including written messages passed from cell to cell. “Sometimes, through their characters, they opened up about problems they would never otherwise discuss — abusive parents, fractured childhoods, drug addictions — unpacking their personal traumas through a thin veil of fantasy,” Blakinger wrote in “When Wizards and Orcs Came to Death Row,” which was co-published by The New York Times Magazine.

Mercy Workers

Reporter Maurice Chammah spent more than three years reporting “The Mercy Workers,” a rare look at the profession of “mitigation specialists,” who unearth the trauma that often underpins capital crimes. Sara Baldwin, a leader in the field, agreed to let Chammah shadow her. They chose the case of James Bernard Belcher, who was facing a death sentence for raping and murdering Jennifer Embry in Jacksonville, Florida. Chammah spent time with Baldwin and Belcher as a long history of trauma in his childhood was uncovered. He then took readers along to Belcher’s resentencing hearing, sitting with Belcher’s mother as she learned whether her son would live or die. To reach a broader audience, artist Jackie Roche then turned it into a beautifully illustrated comic-style story.

Books banned in prisons

In the past year, we’ve gathered information, state-by-state, on prison book policies and lists of publications banned in prisons. Led by Andrew Rodriguez Calderón and Ryan Murphy, our team has built a searchable database so readers can see for themselves which books prisons are banning. We’ve also put together a how-to for other journalists to report on banned books and highlighted our key findings. Our Cleveland reporting team also used the data to focus on which books are banned in Ohio and why.

Calderón and reporter Shannon Heffernan also looked at the recent crackdown in Iowa, Missouri and Texas restricting who can send books to prisons because of concerns over paper laced with narcotics. A senior manager at PEN America told the reporters that allowing books only from certain vendors amounts to censorship.

Gun arrests in Chicago

Arrests in Chicago for illegally possessing firearms have increased in recent years to levels not seen since the 1990s — even as the police department’s total number of arrests is falling. Reporters Lakeidra Chavis and Geoff Hing delved into the data to measure the toll of Chicago’s gun policies. They found that tens of thousands of people — almost always Black men — have been convicted of felonies, for what is primarily a licensing issue. The reporters also found that the belief that making gun possession illegal without permits makes people safer is not supported by data. Research shows that most people convicted in Illinois for felony gun possession don’t go on to commit a violent crime, and the majority of those sentenced to prison for gun possession don’t have past convictions for violence.

Reaching incarcerated readers

Our print publication, “News Inside,” goes into 1,359 prisons across the United States, taking our criminal justice coverage to incarcerated audiences. This year, those issues included stories about the lack of lawyers for people in pretrial detention in Mississippi, employment barriers for formerly incarcerated people and the push to improve food in Texas prisons. The final issue of the year also included an Ohio-specific insert created by our Cleveland outreach manager, Louis Fields, that included our reporting on bail reform and sentence reductions. Every issue includes “The Peeps” comic, “Reader to Reader” advice column, a crossword and “Thinking Inside the Box” quiz.

Taking readers inside prisons

Our Life Inside essays offer people a window into life inside prisons and jails. This year, those first-person features included Michael Shane Hale’s essay on creating a welcoming and safe space in the prison library, Bobby Bostic’s piece on his post-prison writing workshops at juvenile detention facilities in St. Louis, and Earline Brooks Colbert’s story about her brother and then her son being wrongly convicted for murder in Louisiana.

We also gave readers a series of beautiful animations featuring stories of people affected by the justice system. Ymilul Bates did a voice-over for animated illustrations showing a jail waiting room for a piece about visiting her young son in jail for the first time. As images track his story, Bostic describes his mother’s garden in St. Louis and compares it with the healing he found when he signed up for garden duty while he was in prison in Missouri.

“Two Strikes” airs on FRONTLINE

Working with FRONTLINE’s Firelight Fellowship program, reporter Cary Aspinwall and filmmaker Ursula Liang turned Aspinwall’s story about life without parole sentences in Florida into a short documentary that aired on the TV news program. “Two Strikes” tells the story of Mark Jones, a 37-year-old former West Point cadet suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism, who was sentenced to life in prison in Florida after an unsuccessful carjacking. Jones had earlier arrests for minor crimes, but Florida’s “two-strikes” law allows the maximum punishment for people who commit a felony within three years of leaving prison, even for a failed carjacking attempt in which no one was physically injured.

Our 2019 film “Tutwiler” aired on the same FRONTLINE broadcast. For Tutwiler, reporter Alysia Santo and filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon followed the pregnancies of women incarcerated in Alabama as they worked with doulas to help them prepare for delivery.

Using data to tell stories

Data reporter Weihua Li has spent the past two years delving into gaps in FBI crime data caused by some major cities’ slowness in adopting the agency’s new reporting system. Almost every police agency was using the old system in 2020, but when the new system went into effect in 2021, thousands of agencies dropped out. So, people in those communities — and their political leaders — don’t fully know the state of crime. For instance, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said this year that crime in his state was at a “50-year low.” But reporting by Li and Jasmyne Ricard showed he was relying on incomplete data.

Li and Jamiles Lartey also found that the FBI’s crime reporting program and the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ crime victimization survey differed widely on year-over-year violent crime trends.

And our updated look at mass shooting data by David Eads, Anna Flagg, Anastasia Valeeva and Wendy Ruderman found that these crimes in 2023 continued the upward trend of recent years, even using the most conservative definition.

Migrants trapped in asylum system

In “Migrants Desperate for Jobs Trapped in Asylum Maze,” Julia Preston wrote in August about the plight of almost 60,000 migrants stuck in shelters in New York City while they waited for work permits and their asylum cases to be heard. During her reporting, the White House finally moved to speed up the process, allowing many of them to file for work authorization. Without those permits, many families were forced into the underground economy.

Juan Carlos Bello, a political organizer who fled Venezuela for safety, had created a business installing cabinets in his home country. He said he was determined to stay on the legal path. “We have to hang on and keep moving forward,” he said.

News Inside

The print magazine that brings our journalism behind bars.
Telling Cleveland’s stories

Reporting from Cleveland, Mark Puente teamed up with WEWS News 5 reporter Tara Morgan to examine the high number of driver licenses suspended in Ohio for fines or other reasons not related to driving. Our investigation found that the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles issued nearly 200,000 new license suspensions in 2022 for debt-related reasons, such as not having proof of insurance, failing to pay court fines, or missing child support payments. Thousands of residents have had to go on payment plans and meet other requirements before they can apply for reinstatement, making it difficult for them to get to work.

In another investigation, Puente looked into the questionable relationship between Judge Leslie Ann Celebrezze and a court-appointed receiver who earned hundreds of thousands of dollars for work in her courtroom. The Ohio Supreme Court recently ruled that Celebrezze violated court rules when she steered a contentious but lucrative divorce case to her own docket and appointed the receiver, a lifelong friend.

Rachel Dissell and Ilica Mahajan continued our in-depth look at the bail system in Cuyahoga County, finding that the use of cash bail is on the decline while personal bonds that don’t require payment for release are being used more often. But the practices varied by judge, with some rarely setting cash bail and others requiring it routinely.

Police tactics in Memphis

When Tyre Nichols died after being beaten by Memphis police in January, attention turned to the department’s Scorpion Unit, whose officers had stopped him. But Marshall Project reporters Daphne Duret and Weihua Li, along with Marc Perrusquia of the Institute for Public Service Reporting, dug deeper into the department’s record of violence. Our investigation found incidents of aggressive policing throughout the 1,900-member force. A review of more than 200 recent arrest reports showed that rank-and-file officers, as well as Scorpion members, used overzealous methods.

In a subsequent story, Duret and Perrusquia revealed that federal judges and magistrates in Memphis had rejected evidence in at least 10 cases involving the city’s police department over the past five years. In several cases, they chastised officers for overzealous policing.

Corcoran Prison in harm’s way

Susie Cagle began investigating the effects of rising water on Corcoran Prison as the water first reached Tulare Lake in March. Over months of reporting, she spoke with 12 prisoners and 25 family members, officials and experts. She also reviewed hundreds of documents to piece together The Marshall Project’s first long-form comic, “In Harm’s Way.” Cagle told the story of Corcoran in more than 70 panels, providing a deep exploration of California’s decision to place two prisons in a dry lakebed despite warnings of future flooding and tapping into data to explain the region’s sinking ground. She also provided vivid scenes of life behind bars, supported by prisoner interviews.

Mental health and criminal justice

Christie Thompson reports on the intersection of mental health and the criminal justice system, probing what happens to people who have dementia or mental illness when they are charged with a crime or have encounters with police.

In “The Never-Ending Murder Case,” she told the story of Jose Veguilla, an 83-year-old Massachusetts man with dementia who was charged with murder in the death of his nursing home roommate. Veguilla was sent to a state hospital to be evaluated and held until being “restored” to competency. But dementia is not a mental illness that can be treated with medications. He was transferred to a more therapeutic hospital, but is essentially in limbo. Thompson found that Veguilla and other people with dementia who are charged with crimes are being drawn into a system that isn’t set up for them.

Reporting on Mississippi

In 2020, Joseph Neff and Alysia Santo investigated payments to Management and Training Corporation. They found that the private prison company had collected millions of dollars by charging the corrections department for vacant security positions. State Auditor Shad White opened an investigation after our story was published and announced in September that MTC had repaid the state more than $5 million for so-called ghost workers.

Caleb Bedillion, one of our new reporters based in Jackson, partnered with ProPublica this year to examine Mississippi’s underfunded, patchwork public defense system. They found that poor defendants in Mississippi routinely were being jailed for months, or even years, without a lawyer being assigned to them. The state Supreme Court directed judges to ensure poor defendants get lawyers promptly, but months after it went into effect in July, the order wasn’t being widely followed.

Closing Argument

Every week, a flood of stories about the criminal legal system vie for readers’ attention. The Marshall Project’s “Closing Argument” tackles one of these topics every week, adding context, expert analysis and links to the best journalism around the country to explain the issue.

The newsletter is reported and written by Jamiles Lartey, built on the efforts of our entire staff, who catalog dozens of criminal justice-related news stories daily. The goal of “Closing Argument” is to whittle down this endless stream of information so the average reader can easily digest and use it.

When Tyre Nichols died in January after five Memphis police officers beat him during a traffic stop, Lartey and Wilbert Cooper examined how much the race of officers affects how they approach their jobs. All five officers were Black, as was Nichols. Cooper, who comes from a family of Black officers, has done extensive research on this subject and offered a personal perspective.

Growing newsletters and audience

With the addition of a local reporting team in Jackson, we’re adding another newsletter in January. It will focus on our news coverage in Mississippi, as the newsletter from our team in Cleveland, Ohio, does. As we prepare to launch our coverage in Mississippi, we want to hear from readers there about the criminal justice issues that concern them. Here’s how to fill out that survey.

We also have a daily newsletter, “Opening Statement,” written by Andrew Cohen, that is a comprehensive look at the criminal justice landscape.

Newsletter manager Rachel Kincaid manages more than a half dozen regular newsletters and gives readers and donors behind-the-scenes looks at our investigatory projects. Here’s how you can subscribe to any of them.

Also this year, audience director Ashley Dye added two audience engagement producers to their staff: Kristin Bausch and Chris Vazquez. They have dramatically increased our presence on TikTok and enriched our offerings on Instagram.

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.