2016 Knight Award for Public Service winner

Prisons Reporting

Dana Liebelson


Knight Award for Public Service


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About the Project

Last spring, a representative of the Michigan Attorney General pulled Dana Liebelson out of an interview she was conducting in a prison and subpoenaed her handwritten notes. Liebelson was reporting on allegations of systematic abuse of kids in the state’s adult prison system. The next day, when she traveled over 100 miles to another correctional facility, the AG’s representative followed her and issued a second subpoena.

When Liebelson publicized the subpoenas, the AG withdrew them, and apologized. But it was too late: Liebelson already had what she needed to publish an explosive story on Michigan’s juvenile justice system.

The resulting story begins with a disturbing video in an adult correctional facility in Michigan that shows a 17-year-old girl being forcibly removed from her cell and subjected to a practice called “five-point restraint.” She is placed in a body-sized bag by a group of officers in masks who cut away her clothes and strap down her arms, legs, and chest. One officer holds a spit mask over her face even though she repeatedly tells him she’s unable to breathe. The video makes an especially dramatic opener for the story, which is best experienced online.

It took Liebelson some six months of persistent source cultivation to obtain this video and four other recordings of young inmates held in adult prison facilities in Michigan. Once she had the names of the inmates, she filed Freedom of Information requests for records relating to their treatment. She obtained hundreds of pages of cell observation logs, medical records, solitary confinement data, and disciplinary reports. She didn’t just rely on talking heads or lawyers: She had access to the victims themselves. She was able to document tragedies in real time. Teenagers were tasered, isolated and forcibly extracted from their cells. These are accepted practices in adult prisons, but they are especially harmful to adolescents, whose brains are still developing, and who have a better shot at rehabilitation, Liebelson found.

Later the same year, Liebelson did it again. This time, she investigated the mysterious death of an inmate in a Nevada prison. She found that the prisoner had been shot to death — which is odd, because the vast majority of prisons don’t allow the use of guns inside the housing units. Nevada does, though — as Liebelson reported, it’s the only state in the nation that uses firearms for routine inmate control.

Once again, Liebelson didn’t rely on lawyers or NGOs — she spoke with families, wrote to inmates, and tracked down primary-source documents. In doing so, she was able to tell a never-before-told tale: How, and why, Nevada first chose to use guns in prisons.

When Liebelson investigates prisons, she gets results. Her Michigan story drew widespread attention to the treatment of children in prison. More than 80,000 people signed a petition that cited her piece and called on the Justice Department to investigate the issue. Michigan lawmakers introduced 21 bills addressing the treatment of juveniles in state adult facilities.

After Liebelson’s Nevada story came out, the Nevada Attorney General’s office charged the correctional officer who shot and killed an unarmed inmate with two felonies, including involuntary manslaughter. Governor Sandoval also hired a new Nevada Department of Corrections director. In May, with the governor’s support, the director announced the immediate removal of birdshot from all prison facilities in the state. The department is now studying the use of less lethal alternatives, and has changed its mission to emphasize rehabilitation over punitive measures.

Reporting on prisons is always challenging, but Liebelson faced more roadblocks than usual. At one point, Michigan asked for more than $76,000 to fulfill routine FOIA requests. Nevada ignored or outright denied many of Liebelson’s FOIA requests. Despite these obstacles, Liebelson was able to interview prisoners and cross-check their accounts with other inmates as well as official prison documents. The full versions of the Michigan videos, along with many of the documents, were displayed in the story so that readers could see the full context of the events being described. She also published photographs of shotgun injuries, including photos of the body of the inmate who was killed.