National Public Radio reporter and Clark University alumna Lee Gaines ’11 has been recognized with a prestigious Regional Edward R. Murrow Award for her series of reports that uncovered many of the barriers current and former Illinois prisoners face when it comes to obtaining an education.
The series, “Educating the Imprisoned,” began after Gaines — who works for NPR member station Illinois Public Media — received a tip that without donated books, the state’s 28 correctional facilities would have received virtually no new reading materials in 2017. She dug deeper, and through a Freedom of Information Act request learned that the Illinois Department of Corrections had spent only $276 on books for its entire educational program that year.
Gaines went on to research and publish a series of stories examining the obstacles current and/or former inmates face when it comes to obtaining an education, including severe underfunding and censorship in prison libraries. Her reporting covers the hurdles of attaining an education with a felony record and heroin addiction; what would happen if prisoners were eligible to receive Pell Grants again; and the value of a college-in-prison program beyond recidivism numbers.
In one story that earned national attention, Gaines reported that the Danville Correctional Center had removed more than 200 books, mostly about race, from a college-in-prison program library. Her reporting focused on why the books had been removed and followed developments as the Illinois Department of Corrections revised its publication review policy.
A Newport, Rhode Island native, Gaines majored in English at Clark. “Like many states across the country, Illinois is under a lot of pressure to depopulate its prison system,” she said in a November 2019 ClarkNow story. “We’re in this moment where criminal justice reform is a bipartisan issue. There’s a recognition on both sides of the political aisle that the way we’re doing things right now doesn’t really make sense. I think that’s one reason why this story really took off.”
“Educating the Imprisoned,” which won the Regional Edward R. Murrow Award for Best News Series, will now advance to the National Murrow Award competition.