WASHINGTON – A former Capital News Service reporter has won a Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Journalism Award for her stories on a group of Maryland inmates preparing for life after prison.
Sarah Schaffer, 28, won the college division of the award for “Outside the Fence,” a four-part series she wrote for CNS in April 2003.
“I’m really humbled by the whole experience,” said Schaffer, who now writes for the “Live!” section of The (Baltimore) Sun.
The idea for the series came to Schaffer after she met with a Goodwill Industries official early last year on another story. When he introduced her to recently released inmates who were trying to get some assistance in starting their lives over, Schaffer said she “realized they were up against it.”
So at least once a week for three months, she sat with a group of inmates at the Metropolitan Transitional Center in Baltimore as they met to talk about and prepare for life after prison.
Schaffer’s stories showed that obstacles facing released prisoners in Maryland were numerous, including a lack of education, a loss of public assistance, fewer job opportunities, the possibility of returning to a life of crime and increased suspicions in the post-Sept. 11 world.
In announcing her prize, the judges, all journalists themselves, praised Schaffer’s story as a “timely, comprehensive look at the hopes and aspirations of the men and women behind bars.”
The RFK Journalism Awards, created in 1968 by a group of reporters who covered Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign, honor outstanding reporting on problems of the disadvantaged. Other winners this year included PBS’s “Frontline,” and journalists from the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others.
Among journalists, the RFK award is “one of the real biggies,” said Tom Kunkel, dean of the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, which operates Capital News Service.
“It’s incredibly well-respected and incredibly hard to win,” Kunkel said. “For someone like Sarah to win this award, and for her work she did at Capital News Service, it’s extraordinary and remarkable. The college couldn’t be any prouder.”
Schaffer, who graduated from the university with a master’s in journalism in 2003, will receive the award at a ceremony in Washington in May.
The RFK is the second award for Schaffer’s series.
Maryland Newsline, the college’s online newsmagazine, won first place for online feature writing in region 2 of the Society of Professional Journalists student contest this month for an “Outside the Fence” package designed by Adam Newman, who took pictures for the series. The online version can be found at http://www.newsline.umd.edu/justice/specialreports/prison/barriersoutside043003.htm.
-30- CNS 04-22-04