New York Times Reporter Sam Dolnick has won the 2012 Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism for his eye-opening three-part series Unlocked: Inside New Jersey’s Halfway Houses. His exposé of New Jersey’s privately run halfway houses uncovered a broken and horribly flawed correctional system in which gang activity, drug use, sexual assaults and other violent behavior were commonplace and where lax security led to hundreds of annual escapes.
Dolnick’s reports also exposed the close ties between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Community Education Centers, the company that runs many of the state’s halfway houses.
In selecting “Unlocked” for the Bingham Prize, judges praised Dolnick’s powerful writing, the depth and scope of the investigation and the ability of the series to spur meaningful reforms. The series revealed that although some of New Jersey’s halfway houses are as big as prisons, they are run with little state supervision and employ no corrections officers. Astonishingly, staff members are not allowed to restrain those trying to flee.
During the course of his research, Dolnick requested and obtained hundreds of pages of official documents and conducted more than 200 interviews – and he persuaded all of his sources to speak on the record.
When “Unlocked” was published, Gov. Christie called on New Jersey’s Department of Corrections Commissioner to step up inspections of the halfway houses; fines against some of the operators were imposed; and hearings were held in both houses of the state legislature, resulting in the introduction of 14 reform bills, which are now pending.