The Secret Terror Inside U.S. Prisons | Hillman Foundation

Hillman Prizes

2024 Hillman Prize for Newspaper Journalism

Hannah Beckler

Hannah Beckler

Business Insider

Hannah Beckler’s stunning, deeply reported series documents prisoner abuse that shocks the conscience, and has led to significant legislative reforms.

The reporting began in 2022, when she saw a news story about a lawsuit, filed by a Virginia prisoner, saying he’d been attacked in his prison cell by a patrol dog. It seemed like an aberration, but she searched to see whether this had happened before. Beckler discovered a few journalistic reports of prison dog attacks, centered on two high-profile incidents in Virginia in 2021. She soon located other Virginia lawsuits, then dozens of suits in other states, all from prisoners who alleged they’d been mauled by dogs. She ultimately identified a dozen states that authorized the use of attack-trained dogs, and submitted more than 50 record requests to their corrections departments. This brought incident reports, internal emails, euthanasia records, and exclusive videos.

Illustration of police officers and police dogs standing over prisoner on the ground

Business Insider launched a public records battle in Virginia, in partnership with a University of Virginia law clinic, as the state deployed dogs far more often than any other. Eventually, the investigators obtained hundreds of incident reports from the state department of corrections. Beckler’s extensive correspondence with prisoners in maximum security facilities produced a cache of additional documents, including grievance reports, and medical records. She contacted corrections officials across the country who had overseen dog programs; and to care providers who had witnessed the aftermath of dog attacks.

Beckler communicated with dozens of incarcerated men: in phone interviews that cut off every 20 minutes; through correspondence over internal messaging systems; and, in one case, via “kite,” a brief message to reach a source in solitary confinement, hand-delivered by a corrections officer. The prisoners who’d been attacked experienced crush injuries, muscle damage, septic infections, and had symptoms of trauma. Many live with persistent, intrusive memories.

For a disturbing, accompanying video documentary, Beckler secured exclusive footage and interviews with key players, including a former corrections commissioner, a former Virginia dog handler, and two former prisoners who spoke vividly and emotionally about their experience of being attacked. “The screaming, the fighting, the blood,” one source said. “It’s just not something you forget.”

In digging into the history of these programs, Beckler pursued other troubling leads. She discovered a 2005 report from the Department of Justice inspector general that mentioned the corrections commissioner who introduced attack dogs to Arizona had served as a civilian advisor at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Human rights abuses at that facility, including the use of dogs to terrorize inmates, became the subject of military courts-martial. She combed through the report to identify every civilian corrections advisor who served in Abu Ghraib and researched each one, ultimately discovering that they all had run U.S. prison dog programs.

When a former prisoner told Beckler an officer had shouted racial slurs at him during a dog attack, she tracked down other racial incidents in civil complaints, a human rights report, and a Department of Justice investigation. She also disclosed a particularly troubling cluster of attacks on men who were shackled.

When this report was published, Virginia’s corrections commissioner stepped down, and the new corrections commissioner invited Beckler to brief him on her reporting. In March, 2024, the Governor of Virginia signed bipartisan legislation to regulate the use of patrol dogs in state prisons. The law severely limits the use of attack-trained dogs except in extremely limited circumstances.

Hannah Beckler is an award-winning reporter and senior editor on the investigations team at Business Insider. Prior to joining Business Insider, her reporting appeared in The New Republic and Documented. She’s originally from Colorado and is now based in Brooklyn, NY.