2020 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Prizes for Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting

A powerful exposé of negligence by the largest private contractor of prison health care, and a series examining the plight of indigenous Alaskans living with no police protection are the winners of the nation’s most prestigious award for justice journalism.

Karol V. Mason, President of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, announced that the 15th annual John Jay College/Harry Frank Guggenheim awards for Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting have been awarded to Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken of CNN, and Kyle Hopkins of the Anchorage Daily News.

“We are proud to honor once again the work of journalists who report on our justice system,” said President Mason.  “This year’s winners demonstrate the critical role played by the media, locally and nationally, to ensure our justice system lives up to the values that sustain our democracy.”

The prizes, administered by John Jay’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice (CMCJ), recognize the previous year’s best print and online justice reporting in a U.S.-based media outlet between November 2018 and October 2019. Winning entries in each of the two categories share a cash award of $1,500 and a plaque. Runners-up (see below) receive certificates of Honorable Mention.

The 2020 Winners

Blake Ellis

Blake Ellis, CNN. Photos courtesy CNN

Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken, reporting for CNN, share the 2020 John Jay Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award (Single-Story Category) for their year-long investigation of the deficiencies in for-profit health care administered in the nation’s correctional facilities.

Focusing on the nation’s largest private contractor of prison health services, they documented how doctors and nurses working for Correct Care Solutions (now Wellpath) repeatedly failed to diagnose and monitor chronic illnesses and life-threatening diseases as part of a pattern of negligence that in some cases led to inmate deaths.

Their reporting, supported by court files, public records requests, interviews with over 50 current and former employees, and first-hand accounts from inmates themselves, used powerful videos and photojournalism to tell the story both visually and digitally.

Melanie Hicken

Melanie Hicken CNN 

As a result of Ellis’ and Hicken’s reporting, local prison contracts with the healthcare provider came under scrutiny from lawmakers, and attracted national calls for further investigation.

“The U.S. government has a moral obligation to respect the dignity of every individual in its care, and that mission is severely compromised when government agencies transfer responsibility to private corporations incentivized to cut costs and turn profits,” California Sen. Kamala Harris said in a statement after the story was posted.

Read the CNN story here.

Kyle Hopkins of the Anchorage Daily News won the 2020 John Jay Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award (Series Category) for a series of stories revealing how indigenous Alaskans are systematically denied basic public safety services.

His series, entitled “Lawless,” produced in partnership with ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, found that a lack of qualified personnel had forced some Alaska communities to hire officers convicted of felonies, domestic violence and other offenses. Hopkins traveled to remote villages where residents themselves deal with lawbreakers, in some cases restraining active shooters with duct tape. One in three Alaska communities had no local law enforcement of any kind.

Kyle Hopkins

Kyle Hopkins. Photo courtesy Anchorage Daily News

The impact of Hopkins’ reporting was “immediate and staggering,” Charles Ornstein, Deputy Managing Editor of ProPublica, said in a letter accompanying the entry. After traveling to Alaska, U.S. Attorney General William Barr declared the state’s lack of rural law enforcement a federal emergency, and the Department of Justice pledged $52 million to provide public safety officers, training and infrastructure in Alaska villages.

The U.S. Attorney’s office announced it would hire rural prosecutors; and some communities, such as the Inupiaq village of Stebbins, will receive Alaska Trooper posts for the first time.

Download The Anchorage Daily News series here.


A close look at New York gang policing published by The Intercept was Runner-Up in the single-story category.  Alice Speri spent three years looking into what was called at the time the “largest gang takedown in New York City history”—which led to 120 indictments in April, 2016. Her reporting raised questions about the work of police and prosecutors in a case most media outlets covered by press release.

Her story highlighted “systemic problems” in the justice system, including the reliance by prosecutors on a mass plea-bargaining system that undermined poor defendants’ right to due process.

Alice Speri

Alice Speri. Photo courtesy The Intercept.

In the process of reporting the story, which was accompanied by a documentary produced by Stephanie Tangkilisan, Alice embedded herself in the Bronx community impacted by the raid. Her reporting was since “cited by a number of groups working to keep police and city officials accountable to the public about their gang policing practices,” said Roger Hodge, Deputy Editor of The Intercept.

Read The Intercept story here.

A team of journalists at the Greenville News, led by Nathaniel Cary, was named Runner-Up in the series category for a closely reported look at the practice of civil asset forfeiture in South Carolina.

The team, which also included Mike Ellis, Anna Lee and photojournalist Josh Morgan, gathered over 3,200 records at county courthouses to produce the first-known statewide database of civil asset forfeiture in the country. Their stories identified significant abuses in a system that allowed authorities to seize $17 million of assets over three years—often from people never convicted or even charged with a crime.

Greenville News

The Greenville News team. Clockwise from left: Nathaniel Cary, Anna Lee, Mike Ellis, Josh Morgan

As result of their series, “Taken,” the state is now considering legislation to end the practice, and a bipartisan group of U.S. representatives in Congress calling for reform has cited the Greenville News reporting. A state court has since ruled that civil asset forfeiture is unconstitutional. The ruling is being appealed.

The awards will be presented February 20, 2020 at a dinner in New York City, held in conjunction with the 14th annual John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America.


Read The Greenville News series here.

The dinner will also honor Dallas Morning News reporter Alfredo Corchado as this year’s “Justice Media Trailblazer,” in recognition of his courageous career-long reporting on Mexican drug cartels operating in the U.S., and more recently his trailblazing coverage of how the immigration crisis has impacted people living in the border region of southwestern U.S.

The awards will be presented by John Jay Provost Yi Li, and Zahira Torres, senior editor in ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network.The dinner program will be emcee’d by Errol Louis of NY1.  Reservations can be made here.

Jurors for the 2020 awards were: Alexa Capeloto, Associate Professor, John Jay College; Joe Domanick, Associate Director, Center on Media, Crime and Justice; Ted Gest, President, Criminal Justice Journalists; Ann Givens of The Trace; Katti Gray, contributing editor, The Crime Report; Leslie Lapides, senior editor at the Center for Sustainable Journalism; Mark Obbie, a criminal justice writer and former executive editor of American Lawyer; and Seth Freed Wessler  of Type Investigations (winner of the 2019 John Jay Journalism Prize in the Single-Story Category).

Wren Longno served as Administrator of this year’s awards.

The prizes have been awarded annually since 2005 in two categories (Best Single Story and Best Series) for work published or posted in U.S. print, magazine and online media that has had a significant impact on criminal justice debate and policy.

The prestigious $1,500 awards, unofficially called the “Pulitzers” of crime and justice journalism, are the only national journalism awards of their type, and are formally  presented at a special dinner during the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America.

The annual awards, sponsored by the nation’s pre-eminent academic institution on criminal justice, honor investigative, feature, analytical, and enterprise journalism on criminal justice and related issues.

Past Prizewinners

Justice Trailblazer Awards

The 2020 awards are presented in conjunction with the John Jay/Harry F. Guggenheim Annual Symposium on Crime in America scheduled February 20-21, 2020. The awards are administered by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay, and judged by a panel of leading journalists and educators.

You can submit entries here. But please first read information about the prize below.

ELIGIBILITY: To be eligible for the prize, work must be published in a newspaper, magazine or online news outlet in the U.S. (broadcast work is eligible if it contains a significant online dimension) between November 1, 2018 and October 31, 2019.

CRITERIA: The awards honor enterprise, analytical and investigative reporting work that has had a demonstrated impact on public understanding or public policy (local or national) in any area related to criminal justice.  Spot news stories may qualify if they advance the above criteria. Each submission can only be entered in one category, but multiple submissions from the same news outlets are accepted. All submissions must include a nominating letter from a supervising editor providing details that can help the judges assess the impact and significance of the work.

DEADLINE: November 12, 2019 11:59 pm EST

COST OF ENTRY:  $75 per submission.

The annual prizes are supported by a grant from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

For questions about the prize, please contact Prize Administrator Wren Longno at, or Ricardo Martinez  at: , 646.557.4690; or Stephen Handelman at:   


2019 Winners:   Type Investigations and Pro Publica

2018 Winners:    Miami Herald  and Chicago Reader

View photos of the 2018 Trailblazer and Prize dinner here

2017 Winners    ProPublica and Mother Jones

2016 Winners   The Marshall Project and the Belleville News-Democrat

2015 Winners   The New Yorker and the Post and Courier (Charleston)

2014 Winners  The (Sarasota) Herald Tribune and the South Florida Sun Sentinel

2013 Winners   The Times-Picayune and Mother Jones

2012 Winners  The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and Mother Jones

2011 Winners   New York Magazine and The Philadelphia Inquirer

2010 Winners  The Belleville News Democrat and the Austin Chronicle

2009 Winners  The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Times Herald-Record

2008 Winners      The Denver Post and The Wall Street Journal

2007 Winners        The San Jose Mercury and The Sacramento Bee

2006 Winners      The Rocky Mountain News and the Boston Phoenix




Since 2013, The Crime Report  in collaboration with the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College has honored individuals from the media and related fields who have expanded public awareness about the challenges and complexities of criminal justice.

The 2019 Trailblazers were Sarah Koenig and Brittany Packnett.

The 2018 Trailblazer was Bill Moyers.

Past winners have included  David Simon, creator of “The Wire” (2013); Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black (2014);  Maria Hinojosa, PBS host and founder of Futuro Media (2015); and Jelani Cobb (2016), New Yorker writer and director of the Institute for African American Studies at the University of Connecticut;  Van Jones. of CNN (2017).