Nieman News

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – New York Times reporter Sam Dolnick has won the 2012 Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism for his three-part series Unlocked: Inside New Jersey’s Halfway Houses.

During an exhaustive 10-month investigation of New Jersey’s privately run halfway houses, Dolnick discovered a broken and horribly flawed correctional system in which gang activity, drug use, sexual assaults and other violent behavior were commonplace and where lax security led to hundreds of annual escapes. While at large, some fugitives committed violent crimes, including murder, yet the state failed to punish the halfway house operators responsible for the runaways.

Dolnick’s reports also exposed the close ties between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Community Education Centers, the company that runs many of the state’s halfway houses. The governor once lobbied for CEC and visited and commended their halfway houses. In addition, Christie’s close friend and advisor William J. Palatucci was a company executive in 2010 when CEC serious faced financial difficulties, yet was not censured by the state.

In selecting “Unlocked” for the Bingham Prize, judges praised Dolnick’s powerful writing, the depth and scope of the investigation and the ability of the series to spur meaningful reforms. They chose the series from a field of nearly 100 entries submitted by many of the country’s leading investigative reporters.

Bingham judge Betsy O’Donovan, former editor for The (Durham) Herald-Sun and a 2013 Nieman Fellow said: “Sam Dolnick’s ‘Unlocked’ is a remarkable example of what a persistent journalist can do. It’s a well-told story and proof that shoe-leather reporting can meet and overcome what Worth Bingham described as an ‘atmosphere of easy tolerance’ for crime, corruption and neglect. It’s amazing that this is, essentially, a single reporter’s work, with an obvious warning to other communities that privatize halfway houses and corrections.”

Judge Chris Arnold, an NPR correspondent and 2013 Nieman Fellow, added: “The stories drove home the disturbing lack of security and oversight at these private quasi-jails, the startlingly high numbers of escapes, and the culture of fear and abuse reported by workers and inmates alike. The New Jersey halfway house system had been touted as a model at the vanguard of a national movement toward a less-expensive alternative to prisons. But the stories pulled back the curtain exposing abuse, fraud, and potential favoritism involving the governor and other state officials.”

And judge Laura Wides-Muñoz, Hispanic affairs writer for The Associated Press and a 2013 Nieman Fellow commented: “‘Unlocked’ sheds light on a system that put the bottom line far above the value of human lives sent to those halfway houses, the lives of those charged with taking care of and monitoring them, and finally, the lives of the original victims themselves.”

During the course of his research, Dolnick requested and obtained hundreds of pages of official documents and conducted more than 200 interviews with current and former inmates, facility workers, executives, legislators, corrections officials and former corrections investigators – and he persuaded all of them to speak on the record.

“Unlocked” revealed that although some of New Jersey’s halfway houses are as big as prisons, they are run with little state supervision and employ no corrections officers. Astonishingly, staff members are not allowed to restrain those trying to flee. As a result, between 2005 and 2012, 5,100 escapes were recorded.

Dolnick also found that untrained, often poorly-paid workers are responsible for counseling and supervising large numbers of inmates. Some halfway house residents were so frightened by the dangerous environment that they requested a transfer back to prison and workers feared for their own safety. In a random drug test at one facility alone, 73 percent of the inmates tested positive.

As soon as “Unlocked” was published, Gov. Christie called on New Jersey’s Department of Corrections Commissioner to step up inspections of the halfway houses; fines against some of the operators were imposed; and hearings were held in both houses of the state legislature, resulting in the introduction of 14 reform bills, which are now pending. Christie’s key political ally and associate William Palatucci also has resigned fromCommunity Education Centers.

“Unlocked” drew immediate praise and reaction from legislators and law enforcement officials who were unaware of problems within the system; from competing news outlets that cited Dolnick’s reporting and published their own editorials calling for reform; and from officials across the country concerned about the privatization of prisons in their own states.

The $20,000 Bingham Prize will be presented to Dolnick on May 9, 2013, at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

Dolnick, 32, was named deputy sports editor of The New York Times in February 2013. Until then, he was a reporter on the Metro Desk of The Times. From 2002-2004, he worked as a reporter at the Staten Island Advance before joining The Associated Press in New York. In 2007, he moved to New Delhi as a foreign correspondent for the AP.

In addition to Chris Arnold, Betsy O’Donovan, and Laura Wides-Muñoz , judges for this year’s prize were Souad Mekhennet, a German reporter and columnist and a 2013 Nieman Fellow who works for The New York Times, Der Spiegel and the German television broadcaster ZDF; Maggie Mulvihill, co-director/senior investigative producer for the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and a 2005 Nieman Fellow; and James Neff, investigations editor at The Seattle Times.

As a reporter for The New York Times, Mekhennet recused herself from judging “Unlocked.” After the series was chosen as the Bingham winner, she said “Dolnick’s story shows how important and crucial investigative reporting is, especially when developments in the world need reporters who can dig into a subject and concentrate on getting the truth out.”

The Worth Bingham Prize honors investigative reporting of stories of national significance where the public interest is being ill-served. Judges are guided by such factors as obstacles overcome in getting information, accuracy, clarity of analysis and writing style, magnitude of the situation, and impact on the public, including any reforms that may have resulted.

Worth Bingham, who died at the age of 34, achieved prominence as an investigative journalist and was vice president and assistant to the publisher for the Louisville Courier-Journal. His family and friends created the prize in his memory in 1967. He was a 1954 Harvard University graduate.

Learn more about “Unlocked” and the Worth Bingham Prize

The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard educates journalism’s leaders and elevates the standards of the profession through special programs that convene scholars and experts in all fields. More than 1,300 accomplished and promising journalists from 92 countries have been awarded Nieman Fellowships since 1938. The foundation’s other initiatives include Nieman Reports, an influential quarterly magazine and website that explores contemporary challenges and opportunities in journalism; the Nieman Journalism Lab, a website that reports on the future of news, innovation and best practices in the digital media age; and Nieman Storyboard, a website that showcases exceptional narrative journalism and explores the future of nonfiction storytelling.

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