Kelly Davis is San Diego SPJ’s 2023 Journalist of the Year

The San Diego Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is thrilled to announce our 2023 Journalist of the Year, freelance reporter Kelly Davis, for her continued attention to the San Diego County jail system.

Davis first began covering jail deaths in 2013 while working at San Diego City Beat, revealing with then-colleague Dave Maass that the county had a higher inmate mortality rate than any other large jail system in the state.

Davis’ digging continued despite significant pushback and pressure, including via a subpoena from attorneys representing the county. In 2019, she co-authored an investigative three-part series in the Union-Tribune, “Dying Behind Bars.” The six-month reporting project examined the unusually high death toll in the local jails and the failure of officials to take action.

After the series published, two members of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors hired a consultant to conduct an internal review, which validated the reporting. The series also prompted citizen groups to focus attention on the jail system and push for reforms.

As deaths continued, Davis continued her reporting. Her coverage eventually prompted separate investigations into the jails by the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board and the California State Auditor.

The findings of the state audit, which were released in February 2022, once again validated Davis’ years of journalism and also called for new legislation to improve jail conditions.In 2022, Assemblymember Akilah Weber introduced the Saving Lives in Custody Act, which was vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom. In 2023, state Sen. Toni Atkins has reintroduced the bill to improve jail oversight and mental health care in jails, citing Davis’ work.

The reporting has had other effects on San Diego County. Sheriff Bill Gore announced his resignation on the day the state audit published and forced the issue of jail conditions front and center in the 2022 election for his replacement.

Union-Tribune reporter Jeff McDonald, who co-authored the “Dying Behind Bars” series with Davis, said he is grateful to have worked with her on the 2019 project and the reporting that has followed since.

“Kelly has made San Diego County a better place by almost single-handedly forcing the issue of jail deaths and other negligent practices in local jails to the forefront of the public agenda,” McDonald said. “We are so much better as a community for her efforts, and she continues to make me proud to be her collaborator and friend.”

San Diego SPJ has a tradition of not selecting its own board members as Journalist of the Year. However, as the impact of Davis’ reporting continues to grow, the other board members agreed that we could no longer ignore the significance of her journalism to the San Diego community.

“Kelly’s years-long investigation of deaths and conditions in local jails directly inspired – and likely will continue to inspire – significant change,” SD-SPJ board president Lisa Halverstadt said. “Kelly’s fellow board members decided it was time to recognize her game-changing work and its undeniable impact.”

Please join us in celebrating Davis and our other award winners at Stone Brewing World Bistro and Gardens in Liberty Station on Tuesday, June 20, from 6 to 9 p.m. 

You can check out our list of award winners here and buy tickets here


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