Jeffrey Gerritt, editor of the Palestine Herald-Press, Monday won journalism’s most prestigious award, the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing.
Gerritt received the prize for a series of editorials unmasking medical neglect of county jail inmates in Anderson County and other county jails across Texas.
He was awarded journalism’s top prize by the Pulitzer Prize Board at Columbia University in New York from among three finalists nominated by a journalism committee of Pulitzer judges. The other finalists were Jill Burcum of the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, and Melinda Henneberger of The Kansas City Star.
The Pulitzer Board awarded the prize to Gerritt for “editorials that exposed how pre-trial inmates died horrific deaths in a small Texas county jail -- reflecting a rising trend across the state -- and courageously took on the local sheriff and judicial establishment, which tried to cover up these needless tragedies.”
The winner of numerous other national journalism awards, Gerritt said he could not believe he won the Pulitzer. His publisher, Jake Mienk, informed him in the paper’s parking lot Monday afternoon, shortly after the announcement, as Gerritt returned from running errands.
“I just broke down and fell to the ground,” he said.
Gerritt noted he worked for almost two decades at the Detroit Free Press: “I couldn’t win the Pulitzer in nearly 20 years of winning everything else there,” he said. “I never thought I’d do it at a small paper in East Texas.”
He added: “I’m glad I could do it with a project that involved jails or prisons because advocating for people caught up in the criminal justice system, and other forgotten people, has always been my signature.”
Gerritt thanked his boss, whom he described as “a gutsy small-town publisher who’s not afraid to shake things up, and Bill Ketter, who encouraged me to enter this project in the Pulitzer competition and who has provided invaluable guidance during my two years at the Herald-Press. Without Mr. Ketter’s encouragement, I never would have submitted these editorials for the Pulitzer competition.”
Ketter, senior vice president for news at CNHI and a former Pulitzer Board member, said Gerritt deserved the prize for his knowledge of the subject, persistence in getting at the facts of inmate negligence and death through public records requests, and disclosing the problem in clear, forceful editorials.
The series of editorials were labeled “Death Without Conviction,” and were written in the highest journalism tradition of seeking to right a wrong, said Ketter. They were accompanied by a series of stories written by William Patrick that documented the local sheriff’s and other officials defiance of the problem.
“To quote Peter Finley Dunn, the Irish American writer of Mr. Dooley fame, Gerritt’s editorials “comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable,’” said Ketter.
Publisher Mienk said everybody at the paper was euphoric over the recognition of Gerritt’s exceptional journalism honor. He said the Pulitzer shows small newspapers can make a big impact.
“Few papers of this size get an opportunity to celebrate an editor winning a Pulitzer,” said Mienk. “It is a wonderful feeling. Jeff has a truly amazing talent for editorial writing. He’s not afraid to take the road less traveled to get the answers our community needs.”
Earlier this year, Gerritt won the news industry’s National Headliner Award and, on Sunday, he learned he had also won the coveted national editorial award from the News Leaders Association, an organization that represents the merged American Society of News Editors and the Associated Press Managing editors.
Last year, he won the Walker Stone Award for commentary from the Scripps-Howard Foundation and the Carmage Walls Prize for commentary from the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association.
Gerritt’s career includes nearly two decades at the Detroit Free Press and later serving as deputy editorial page editor of the Toledo Blade in Ohio. He joined the Palestine Herald-Press more than two years ago.
“God bless him for picking Palestine,” Ketter said.