Jail Suicide investigation wins regional Murrow Award

A four-part radio series investigating the high rate of inmate suicides at county jails earned the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and WGBH News a regional Edward R. Murrow Award for Investigative Reporting (large market radio), among the most prestigious honors for broadcast and digital news.

Reporters Chris Burrell, Jenifer McKim, and Shaz Sajadi wanted to know more about suicides among the incarcerated in Massachusetts – especially for inmates in county jails, which receive less scrutiny from the public.

They sought out death data from each county, touring jails, reaching out to grieving families, scouring newspaper articles to identify dead inmates and poring through court documents when families filed suit. They discovered that:

Inmates in Massachusetts county jails kill themselves at a higher rate than prisoners in jails across the United States, even as the national rate is rising.
Over the past five years, twice as many inmates in county jails killed themselves as compared to those in the state prison system, even though both house roughly the same number of inmates.

While state prison suicides have declined in recent years, the rate of suicides in the state’s 13 county jails has doubled.

For his radio series that aired on WGBH in May last year, Burrell recorded sensitive, difficult interviews with family members of inmates who killed themselves, as well as recordings of jailhouse telephone conversations, archived by the jails. The series was edited by WGBH’s Aaron Schachter. WGBH News is the exclusive radio partner for NECIR.

For their companion story published by the Sunday Boston Globe, McKim and Sajadi profiled those who died even after making it clear to officials that they planned to take their own lives. The radio and print stories created public awareness of a growing public health problem in the state, prompted investigations by local jails into what occurred, and efforts to improve the system.

With the award, the series now advances to the National Murrow Award competition, with winners to be announced in June.

The Radio Television Digital News Association has been honoring outstanding achievements in electronic journalism with the Edward R. Murrow Awards since 1971. Award recipients demonstrate the spirit of excellence that Murrow set as a standard for the profession of electronic journalism.