Covering America’s Corrections Systems: A Media ‘Handbook’

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Lee Correctional

South Carolina prisons are among the nation's most troubled. A riot last year at Lee Correctional Institution (above) left 7 dead and 17 injured. Photo by Naveed Rauf via Flickr

There are more than 1,700 correctional facilities in the United States, but despite the large amount of money spent on prisons and jails –the federal government alone spends nearly $8 billion annually to house only a small fraction of the nation’s inmates – there is relatively little in-depth coverage of the subject by news media.

As a result, the complex challenges of the corrections system rarely enter the public debate—and legislators and practitioners contemplating changes are hampered by simplistic rhetoric and arguments that evade conclusions of the latest research.

In an effort to reinforce evidence-based coverage, The Crime Report is publishing an updated “handbook” for journalists on covering America’s corrections system that may prove equally useful for advocates and practitioners.

Prison news gets lots of play when it involves drama involving riots and deaths, such as occurred in Mississippi prisons in late 2019, or the $20 million manhunt in 2015 for two inmates who escaped from New York State’s maximum security Clinton Correctional Facility.

However, many journalists may not realize that the prison beat is incomparably rich turf, a hair-raising intersection of human drama, politics, money, conflict, and power that promises good tales.

Prying those stories loose from a subculture that remains quasi-militaristic is only one challenge of the beat.

A wave of new correctional thinking and leadership has in fact opened up new possibilities for engaging the public in a long-overdue debate about the prospects for change.

The handbook, prepared in collaboration with Criminal Justice Journalists and supported by the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, was released Friday at the H.F. Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America.

Divided in three parts, it includes: covering prisons and jails; covering sentencing; and covering community supervision.

You can download it here.

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