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


Congratulations to this year’s award winners!

The judges have judged and more than 150 (woo-hoo!) San Diego journalists produced award-winning work in 2022. Check the list below for your name and we’ll see you at our annual banquet at Stone Brewing on Tuesday, June 20, where you can pick up your award. Click here for details and a link to purchase tickets. We’ll be announcing first, second and third place winners, and winners of our special awards, at the banquet.

Join the San Diego SPJ Board!

We’re currently seeking candidates interested in running for a seat on our chapter’s board. Board members are involved in planning and executing events, putting on our annual awards banquet and advocating for local journalists. We meet on the first Tuesday of every month in the evening. If you’re an SPJ member, you’re eligible to run.

If you’d like to run for the board, please submit your candidacy statement, including any biographical information you would like to share (200-word limit) by 5 p.m. on Friday, June 2 to

Election results will be announced by early July. Need to renew your membership? Click here.

Party, Journo Style, at SPJ-SD’s Annual Awards Celebration

There’s nothing like an outdoor event in June in San Diego — the sunset, the weather, the summer vibes. Come join us on Tuesday, June 20, for our annual awards dinner and celebration. We’re heading back to Stone Brewing in Liberty Station for a fun, relaxed outdoor gathering, full of good food and drink in the company of your favorite journalists. Pre-sale tickets (through May 19) are $60 for SPJ members and $65 for nonmembers and include a tasty food spread and dessert. Drink tokens, available on our ticket website, are $6 for craft sodas and $9 for a beer, wine or hard seltzer.

The evening will include a short program when we’ll announce the winners of our special awards and honor our Journalist of the Year (TBA). Once again we’ll be holding a silent auction, so come prepared to drop some extra cash on one of our fabulous items.

We’ll be announcing our awards winners soon, so keep an eye on this space.

As in past years, first-place winners will receive a plaque and second and third place winners will receive a certificate. You can pick up your awards at the event.

When: Tuesday, June 20, from 6 to 9 p.m.

Where: Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens @ Liberty Station, 2816 Historic Decatur Road, Unit 116, Building 12

Buy tickets via our ticket website.