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WBEZ’s Motive Season 4 podcast receives Criminal Justice Reform Prize from Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights

Investigative podcast recognized for its exemplary criminal justice reporting about the factors that shape prison conditions and the hidden world of prison towns.


CHICAGO (May 3, 2023) — WBEZ Chicago has received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights 2023 Journalism Award for season 4 of its investigative podcast, Motive. The podcast offered an unprecedented view into one of the most hidden places in the country: America’s prisons. It is now being recognized with the Criminal Justice Reform Prize, which recognizes exemplary criminal justice reporting that offers insight on the causes and conditions of human rights violations and injustice.

WBEZ’s award recipients include Shannon Heffernan, criminal justice reporter and podcast host; Rob Wildeboer, senior editor, criminal justice; Kevin Dawson, executive producer; Jesse Dukes, producer; and Marie Mendoza, podcast fellow.

In Motive season 4, Heffernan investigated the factors that shape conditions inside prisons, from the hidden world of prison towns to the deep-seated issues within prisons that go largely unseen. The podcast is a culmination of years of Heffernan’s investigative reporting on criminal justice for WBEZ.

“Prisons are among the most hidden places in the United States. Even people working or incarcerated inside cannot access important stories and information,” said Heffernan in a 2022 press release about the podcast. “I wanted to explore how prisons function. Not just between individual guards and prisoners, but everything inside and outside the prison walls that must be in place for serious problems to go seemingly ignored.”

Heffernan shared first-hand accounts from prisoners, guards, and mental health staff inside the Illinois Department of Corrections that demonstrated how the prison system is often structured around punishment, rather than correction and reform. Her investigation took her to prison towns in the most remote corners of Illinois, from small town chili cookoffs to rural State’s Attorney offices. And, she combed through a trove of emails between guards that show secret affairs, family relationships, an evident strain on their mental health, and attitudes towards prisoners and punishment.

Motive is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, NPR One, Pocket Casts or wherever listeners get their podcasts. In the podcast’s most recent season 5, which returned this winter for a fifth season, WBEZ criminal justice reporter Patrick Smith provided an inside look at anti-violence workers in the city of Chicago and alternative, community-based approaches to combating gun violence that go beyond policing.