Post-Dispatch columnist wins Pulitzer for coverage of debtors’ prisons

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ST. LOUIS – Columnist Tony Messenger is the first St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer to win a Pulitzer Prize since 1972. He was a finalist in 2015 for his Ferguson account. But it was his work on debtors’ prisons in Missouri that earned him the holy grail of journalism.

“It's just an incredible professional validation,” Messenger said. “A lot of hard work but it elevates the topic of criminal justice reform.”

Messenger found defendants across Missouri who owed thousands of dollars for time spent in jail even though they had fulfilled their sentences or served out parole. As a result of his work, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled judges can’t use courts to threaten poor defendants with jail time or collect debts as court costs.

What does the honor mean for the Post-Dispatch?

“People in St. Louis love and connect with the Post. So now I have connected my readers to that award to the newspaper’s history and that’s meaningful,” he said.

Messenger said warm wishes and notes congratulations have poured in, for now.

“I was working on a column that'll be in Wednesday’s paper that I know criticizes a couple people who congratulated me (Monday),” he said.

And that's the life of a columnist. Messenger said he feels validated by the honor but hopes his critics take notice.

“I do think it elevates my voice to a point where some of my critics are going to have to recognize, well it’s going to be harder for us to just diminish Tony's reputation,” he said.

Winning this award reminded him of getting a C+ on a high school paper and what his teacher told him.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Is that your best work?’ I had to admit it wasn’t. You'll get an A when you give your best work. This was the Pulitzer committee recognizing my best work,” he said.

In addition to the award, Messenger also claimed a $15,000 cash prize.

And while Messenger said he’s put more work into this story than any other, he plans on writing more on the topic because there some Missouri judges are not complying with the State Supreme Court ruling.

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