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AP reveals chronic problems, personal stories behind a deadly period in Mississippi prisons

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AP began chronicling rising violence across Mississippi’s troubled prison system in late 2019, but it became clear after four deaths in four days that something bigger was going on.

AP was the first mainstream outlet to report that the violence revolved around a dispute between the Vice Lords and Gangster Disciples gangs,weaving in coverage of a Dec. 31 court ruling on prison conditions that many other outlets largely ignored or missed altogether.

Reporters Jeff Amy,Atlanta,and Emily Wagster Pettus,Jackson,Mississippi, quickly put together a deeper dive into the history of underfunding and other problems in the prison system. Officials were saying little in the midst of the crisis,but Amy knew they filed documents each year with legislative budget officials that contained key measures of prison performance. Those documents showed three state-run prisons were staffing only half their guard posts on a routine basis, and also described the ramshackle state of a cell block at the notorious Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.

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Inmates lie on the floor next to a full toilet at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, in an undated photo taken by an inmate and verified by the AP. After violence at the prison on Jan. 2, 2020, guards and state troopers marched some prisoners at Parchman into Unit 32, a cell block closed in 2011 as part of a settlement; the inmate who shot this photo said the unit has no running water or mattresses, and is plagued by mold and other issues. – Anonymous courtesy photo via AP

Amy and Wagster Pettus were able to obtain photos and video shot by a prisoner using a contraband cell phone that showed conditions inside a closed-down cell block reopened to help quell the unrest. In part by comparing the images to past photos of the cellblock, AP was able to verify the authenticity of the visuals and secure needed permissions to use the material.

AP also published all-formats interviews with grieving mothers of prisoners killed,including footage shot by New Orleans video journalist Stacey P. Jenkins, and reported on legal questions surrounding the state’s decision to sign a contract to house inmates at a private prison to help separate prisoners.

AP’s coverage was used by hundreds of outlets and generated thousands of social media interactions,as well as making the front pages and websites of numerous Mississippi customers.

For pulling back the curtain on the conditions and systemic problems inside the state’s prisons,and putting the toll of violence in human terms, Amy and Wagster Pettus receive this week’s Best of the States award.

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