Jeff Gerritt’s first job out of college was as a reporter at the Oshkosh Northwestern, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. In 1988, for a story he was writing, he spent two weeks hanging out at a medium-security prison in the area. Each day, from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., the warden gave Gerritt free run of the prison, allowing him to interview anyone he wanted.
America’s war on drugs was at its height, and Gerritt was shocked by the number of prisoners he met who had been locked up for minor drug offenses. “That experience really got me interested in mass incarceration—the senseless way this country was locking up all these people, destroying all these lives,” he says. “It was really just ripping the African American community apart.” Gerritt’s own family was affected—his brother-in-law had been arrested for selling drugs.
Today, criminal justice is one of the most exciting beats in journalism, with news organizations such as the Marshall Project and the Appeal dedicated to exposing inequities in America’s prison system. But in the late eighties and early nineties, a bipartisan consensus favored tough-on-crime policies such as three-strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentences. As Gerritt moved on to the Green Bay Press Gazette, USA Today, and the Detroit Free Press—where he worked for seventeen years as a reporter, editor, and columnist—some of his editors questioned his apparent obsession with criminal justice.
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They aren’t questioning it any longer. On Monday, Gerritt won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials published in the Palestine Herald-Press, the small East Texas newspaper that he edits. Gerritt took the job in 2017, not without trepidation. A Wisconsin native, he had spent almost no time in Texas. “I got a lot of warnings from my friends in Detroit, who said there were going to be all these Confederate flags, and that I would hate it down here,” Gerritt says. “But there’s some really nice people.”
Palestine is a town of 18,000 that’s about a two-hour drive southeast of Dallas. The Herald-Press, which traces its origins to 1849, claims to be the second-oldest newspaper in Texas after the Galveston Daily News. For Gerritt, a veteran of big-city newspapers, the Herald-Press’s seven-person newsroom required some adjustment. (A series of budget cuts and hiring freezes by its Alabama-based owner, Community Newspaper Holdings, has since whittled the newsroom down to three full-time journalists.)
But if Palestine officials thought Gerritt lacked the resources to hold them accountable, they were sorely mistaken. In 2017, on his third day as editor, Gerritt wrote what he described as a “rather mild” editorial criticizing Anderson County sheriff Greg Taylor, a popular four-term incumbent. In response, Taylor canceled his subscription and cut off communication with Gerritt. At least one city council member has also cut communication.
Gerritt was awarded the Pulitzer for a series of ten editorials he published last year about the record number of people dying in Texas jail cells, including the Anderson County jail overseen by Taylor. Around 110 prisoners died in Texas jails last year—the exact number is uncertain because of poor state record-keeping. On any given night, Texas’s 250 county jails hold about 70,000 prisoners, the vast majority of whom are locked up awaiting trial because they can’t afford bail. The title of Gerritt’s series was “Death Without Conviction.”
“Practically all of the victims were pretrial detainees, without convictions, who could not make bail,” Gerritt wrote. “Their charges were mostly minor, such as criminal trespass, petty theft, public intoxication, or drug possession. These allegations became, in effect, death sentences.”
Through a flurry of Texas Public Information Act requests, Gerritt gained access to Texas Ranger investigation reports on 25 of those deaths, including the particularly gruesome 2018 death of Anderson County prisoner Rhonda Newsome, fifty, the jail’s second in fourteen months. Newsome, who suffered from Addison’s disease and hypertension, died alone in her holding cell three months after being jailed on assault charges stemming from a family fight. Using the Texas Rangers report and information uncovered by a lawsuit filed by Newsome’s family, Gerritt reported that Newsome vomited blood for five days without receiving medical attention. She had fallen victim to what Gerritt described as a “culture of indifference to human suffering” at Texas jails.
Gerritt’s Pulitzer was just the latest in a series of accolades the journalist has received for his no-holds-barred editorials at the Herald-Press, including a National Headliner Award and the News Leaders Association’s Burl Osborne Award for Editorial Leadership. And although he’s received congratulations from many of his loyal readers in Palestine, not everyone’s a fan.
“I had a great relationship with the newspaper until he came along,” Taylor, the Anderson County sheriff and frequent target of Gerritt’s editorials, tells Texas Monthly. “I don’t know what the Pulitzer Prize is even worth. It’s not worth anything now.”
As of Tuesday evening, though, the online comments on the Herald-Press story announcing the Pulitzer were uniformly positive. One commenter, DrRobertMac, likened Gerritt’s win to the local high school football team beating the Dallas Cowboys. “This ranks as one of the biggest honors ever brought to Palestine,” the commenter declared. “Unless you are the sheriff or the executive director of TDCJ [Texas Department of Criminal Justice], count yourself privileged to have had him working at the Palestine Herald-Press.”