Mike Balsamo in Washington and Mike Sisak in New York trained a lens on a single Bureau of Prisons official, Thomas Ray Hinkle, who received promotions across four decades despite repeated allegations of abuse, misconduct and even admissions by him that he’d beaten inmates in the past as part of a gang of guards called “The Cowboys.”
After being tipped earlier this year to Hinkle’s past, Sisak and Balsamo went about securing and scrutinizing 1,600 pages of documents that provided details of the allegations and developed key sources within the prisons system who corroborated the accusations. Finally, toward the end of the reporting process, they secured comment from Hinkle and the bureau, both of which acknowledged his previous excesses but said he was a changed man.
Balsamo and Sisak made sure that the story underwent legal and standards reviews before publication. They also worked with the Washington video team and the Digital Audiences team to ensure material was available for an explanatory video and social promotion, particularly on Instagram. Washington’s Jon Elswick worked with them to develop a set of images of documents and prison exteriors to make the story as visually rich as possible given the prison bureau’s refusal to cooperate.
For the first eight hours after publication, the story logged a remarkable 100 engagement score with APNews visitors, and that score would not drop below 99 for the next 48 hours. At least 20 major AP member news outlets prominently displayed the story on their websites throughout the day it moved.
Within hours of publication on Dec. 9, Politico’s main newsletter shouted out Balsamo and Sisak by name. Two district attorneys in areas with federal prisons and members of Congress demanded action, including Sen. Dick Durbin, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who demanded Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters provide answers about Hinkle’s rise.
On Monday, federal prison workers held a protest demanding Hinkle’s resignation and said his continued presence made their jobs harder and put inmates’ safety at risk. On Tuesday, Peters made her first public comments about Hinkle, speaking with Sisak after testifying before a Senate investigations committee that has spent months scrutinizing the BOP’s inability to clamp down on rampant staff misconduct - much of which has been detailed in Sisak’s and Balsamo’s previous reporting.
For a dogged and impactful investigation that caps a year in which their reporting has shaken the hierarchy of the federal prison systems and forced officials to confront abuses long out of public view, Balsamo and Sisak are Best of the Week-1st Winners.