Subscribe for 99¢

ST. LOUIS • Post-Dispatch metro columnist Tony Messenger has won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, for a series of columns about debtors prisons in Missouri, the Pulitzer awards committee announced Monday.

Messenger found defendants across the state who had fulfilled their sentences and served out their paroles only to be saddled with thousands of dollars in “board bills” for the time they spent in jail.

He said he was inspired by the stories of “people who have been abused by the judicial system all over the state for decades and nobody cared.”

“It’s a story about how we treat people in our state,” Messenger told a celebratory Post-Dispatch newsroom after the announcement. “It’s a story I’m going to keep telling.”

It is the Post-Dispatch’s 19th Pulitzer Prize. The newspaper won its first in 1917 and its most recent in 2015, for photography of violence and unrest after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer.

The Post-Dispatch also won the first Pulitzer ever awarded for commentary, in 1969, awarded to then chief Washington correspondent Marquis Childs.

On Monday, the prize’s awards committee named winners in 13 other categories in journalism. The Los Angeles Times won for investigating a gynecologist “accused of violating hundreds of young women for more than a quarter-century.” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette won for breaking news after a massacre at a synagogue there. And the South Florida Sun Sentinel won the public service award for “exposing failings by school and law enforcement officials before and after the deadly shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.”

Messenger’s columns led to significant action. The Missouri Supreme Court unanimously said that the state’s judges cannot use their courts to threaten indigent defendants with jail time, nor to collect such debts as court costs. The Missouri House passed a bill that would make all such collections civil procedures. The state Senate is now considering the bill.

“Tony’s persistent reporting in his powerful series on the debtors prisons in Missouri represents the relentless work that comes from our newsroom every day,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch President and Publisher Ray Farris said in a statement. “Tony’s work underscores the vitally important role we serve in our community and exemplifies the highest standards of our profession.”

Messenger started writing about court costs and other criminal justice issues, often in small-town Missouri, in 2017. He has written more than 25 columns on the subject. His Pulitzer entry submitted 10, printed from Jan. 5 to Dec. 9, 2018.

Those columns, said Michael Wolff, a retired Missouri Supreme Court chief justice and former dean of the St. Louis University School of Law, tell the story of prosecutors and judges across the state putting people in jail simply because they are poor.

“It is a rare and beautiful thing when solid reporting so shocks the legal system that change becomes inevitable,” Wolff wrote in support of Messenger’s nomination. “Tony Messenger is making that kind of impact.”

Messenger, 52, has worked at the Post-Dispatch since 2008, first as a statehouse reporter, then editor of the editorial page and, since 2015, as the paper’s metro columnist.

This is at least the fifth honor for Messenger’s work on the judicial system: His columns have already won two local and two statewide awards, including the Woodward and Bernstein Award from the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, in recognition of “courageous and persistent news or media reporting on areas that touch our criminal justice system.”

Post-Dispatch editor Gilbert Bailon called Messenger’s reporting “tenacious,” citing courts and judges who tried to block the columnist’s access to public records and hearings.

On Monday afternoon, Bailon referenced the Post-Dispatch’s editorial platform, excerpted from the retirement speech of newspaper founder Joseph Pulitzer, who posthumously established the Pulitzer Prizes.

“Never tolerate injustice or corruption,” Bailon told the gathered newsroom, quoting Pulitzer.

“This is vindication of the kind of work that you all do, and Tony exemplifies today,” Bailon said. “We’re going to keep doing this.”

Tony Messenger's Pulitzer Prize-winning submission

The Pulitzer Prize board considered these columns when it decided to award the prize for commentary to metro columnist Tony Messenger. Their note said the award was "for bold columns that exposed the malfeasance and injustice of forcing poor rural Missourians charged with misdemeanor crimes to pay unaffordable fines or be sent to jail."

3 O'Clock Stir e-newsletter

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.