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Mountain West News Bureau wins national award for tribal jails investigation

An empty corridor at the Navajo Nation Detention in Shiprock, Tuesday, April 13, 2021.
Sharon Chischilly
An empty corridor at the Navajo Nation Detention in Shiprock, Tuesday, April 13, 2021.

The Mountain West News Bureau, in collaboration with NPR, has received a national award for its investigation of deaths at tribal jails.

Reporter Nate Hegyi highlighted neglect and mismanagement in the tribal jail system, where at least 19 people have died since 2016. The jails are overseen by the federal government.

The Public Media Journalists Association selected that report as the best nationally edited news coverage for 2021. The award was announced Friday night at the association’s annual conference.

A related series on tribal jails, reported by Hegyi and Savannah Maher, previously won a regional Edward R. Murrow Award from the Radio Television Digital News Association.

“By revealing the federal government’s shortcomings – and the human toll – these reporters exposed the life-or-death consequences of mismanagement,” said Managing Editor Dave Rosenthal of the Mountain West News Bureau, a public radio collaboration. ”And the continued recognition for their work underscores the importance of this issue.”

“I’m proud of the work these reporters did to bring this issue into the national spotlight,“ said Cheryl W. Thompson, NPR’s senior editor for member station investigations, who edited the national story. “Their stories held the government accountable, which is why we do what we do.”

After the series aired, the Interior Department ordered an independent review of problems at tribal jails.

But Hegyi later revealed that the review was led by a former agency official who had once overseen the jails and then become a consultant. That arrangement, defended by the agency, was criticized by some lawmakers.

The news bureau, a collaboration that provides regional coverage on a wide range of issues, is based at Boise State Public Radio in Idaho. It includes Nevada Public Radio, where Hegyi worked, and KUNM in Albuquerque, where Maher worked.

Other members are Wyoming Public Media, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana. The bureau also draws support from eight affiliate stations.

The tribal jail series was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

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