Searching for Justice
Evaluating media reporting on the US carceral system.
Around 2 million people are incarcerated in the United States at any given time. That's the highest per capita rate in the world. When they are released, most of those people will face "invisible punishment" such as community supervision (parole / probation) requirements, fines, and denial of voting rights. Time spent in prisons and jails impacts personal finances, employment, housing opportunities, social relationships, education, and more. As a result, it is critically important to understand the reentry process and the long-lasting consequences of experiences in the US carceral system.
Since 2020, our colleagues at PBS NewsHour have been reporting on the difficulties of reentry in their Searching for Justice series, with support from the Kendeda Foundation. Knology has partnered with them to research the following questions:
How does U.S. news cover the criminal legal system and reentry process?
Most adults learn about things they don't experience directly through the news, among other sources. So in 2021, we set out to understand how the news media covers the carceral system, specifically formerly incarcerated people's experiences of re-entering society. Our study examined local news stories from a select number of US states. We investigated reporting on barriers to re-entering society, as well as gaps in coverage of this topic. Three questions guided our analysis:
- Do news stories treat people who have been incarcerated as full human beings, or do they focus on a "criminal" identity?
- How does news coverage treat the carceral system and re-entry process?
- How do journalists characterize redemption for formerly incarcerated people?
Where does the US public get information about reentry? What does the US public know about the topic, and what do they see as the biggest problems?
To learn more about public knowledge of and attitudes towards the carceral system and people reentering society, as well as the ways that information sources shape these perspectives, we also conducted an online survey of more than 500 people from around the US. We found that most people get information about the carceral system from traditional news media, with all other information sources besides "personal values or beliefs" lagging behind. However, the type of information source did not predict either (1) attitudes towards formerly incarcerated people or (2) judgments about the relative difficulty of various tasks for them.
We also found that while people were highly aware of some barriers to reintegration (including difficulties with voting and finding housing and employment), others had not made as strong a mark on public consciousness—for example, immediate food insecurity and access to affordable medical care. These findings pointed to gaps in knowledge that reporting can fill, and we shared them with our partners at the NewsHour (who heard many of the same things from the formerly incarcerated people they interviewed).
What do experts (with lived, professional, academic, and research experience) think of post-incarceration news coverage?
We convened a panel of experts to review the coverage on a rolling basis and share their thoughts.
We also spoke with several of these experts about their work and experiences both inside and outside of the criminal legal system. We think you'll learn more hearing from them than reading through reviews. For links to our "spotlight" interviews with these experts, see below!
- Terrence Coffie, Educate Don't Incarcerate - A New York City-based grassroots organization that is working to change policies around incarceration and the treatment of formerly incarcerated individuals.
- Troy Ketchmore, Ketchmore Kids - A non-profit organization that uses hiphop music to teach kids about maturity, problem solving, and conflict resolution.
- Taylor Paul, Taylor Paul Taylor LLC - A community-organizer and business leader who is giving power back to those who have gone through the US carceral system.
- Dr. John Ducksworth, the Multifaith Initiative to End Mass Incarceration - A New York City-based organizer and restorative justice practitioner who works primarily with faith groups to transform the legal system.
- Sylvia Clute, Alliance for Unitive Justice - A former trial attorney, advocate, author, and pioneer of Unitive Justice who has created a transformative model for rethinking the criminal legal system in the US and abroad.
- Tanya Pierce, Life Unbolted - A New York City-based organization that supports successful reintegration for people returning home from the federal prison system.
Sawyer, W., & Wagner, P. (2020). Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020. Prison Policy Initiative. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2020.html
Travis, J. (2002). Invisible Punishment: An Instrument of Social Exclusion. In M. Mauer & M. Chesney-Lind (Eds.), Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Incarceration. The New Press.
Vera Institute. (2021). People in Jail and Prison in 2020. https://www.vera.org/publications/people-in-jail-and-prison-in-2020
Photo by Rayson Tan at Unsplash