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Rehab on hold: COVID devastates prison learning programs

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When the coronavirus pandemic hit, tearing through prisons and killing thousands, it severely disrupted or shut down the very programs prisoners most desperately need to prepare them for eventual release. Trauma counseling, college courses, and job training in carpentry, masonry and barbering were slow to adjust to pandemic learning. Isolation and uncertainty replaced creative outlets and mental health therapies for months on end. National Writer Aaron Morrison and video journalist Noreen Nasir, both from the Race and Ethnicity team, paired with Los Angeles photographer Jae C. Hong for a behind-the-scenes look at a California prison.

Visual access inside U.S. prisons is extremely rare; Morrison got the AP incredible access using connections with sources from previous reporting about prison education programs. The stories of prisoners are often told through statistics, or by the advocates who work with them and prison officials, so the team was particularly mindful of how to humanize the men beyond just their blue uniforms and tattoos, especially as they expressed themselves with such vulnerability through the intensive therapy work and programs. It was important to center the voices and faces of the prisoners themselves throughout the video and photo coverage. The team also worked with AP radio producer Ben Thomas on an audio version of the story, and with the social media team on tailored mobile pushes and promotions for Twitter, Instagram and TikTok.

An illustration by Peter Hamlin, presentation by Samantha Shotzbarger and Ed Medeles, and editing and production support from Global Enterprise, rounded out the package.

Text, video and images from the package were picked up by ABC News and the Washington Post, among dozens of other outlets.

For extraordinary work that allowed AP’s audience to see the little-understood impact of the COVID epidemic in prisons, Morrison, Nasir and Hong share Best of the Week — First Winner honors.

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