Former news desk editor and reporter Frankie Benitez placed in the finals of the 2018-2019 Hearst Feature Writing Competition for her story about prison workers who make furniture for the University of Oregon.
According to Hearst's website, judges chose between 155 feature stories from 85 different universities.
Benitez wrote the story after students associated with the Student Labor Action Project protested against the UO’s purchasing of furniture made by prisoners. The group described the university as “an active participant in perpetuating this country’s culture of enslaving marginalized peoples.” SLAP said that the prison workers earn around $70 to $80 a month and are “subjected to inhumane working conditions under unethical circumstances.”
When she visited the prison, Benitez found that some prisoners value the work, with one worker saying its the “closest feeling I have to feeling like I’m free” and that the positions are sought after by many prisoners.
“This was completely the first time I’d done anything involving a prison. This was very new to me and out of my comfort zone, but I was excited to do something so different,” Benitez said. “I was talking to people who were in there since they were 18 or 19 and they were now 60 years old.”
Benitez said that other reporters spend their careers covering prisons and criminal justice and that her reporting scratched the surface of the issue.
“It was a totally controversial thing to be covering, and there’s ways I could have covered it more thoroughly. There’s so much more to cover in this topic. It was a very cool experience. It was the first time I really felt like I could do that.”
Benitez is currently freelancing for the La Grande Observer.