Nellie Bly’s Legacy: Investigative Journalism & Criminal Justice Reform

One of the earliest and most famous investigations of conditions of confinement began 130 years ago today.

by Emily Widra, September 26, 2017

The high walls that keep incarcerated people in prisons and jails also keep the public – and public oversight — out. One of the key drivers of criminal justice reform is investigative journalism that uncovers injustices and forces our elected officials to pay attention to otherwise hidden institutions.

One of the earliest and most famous investigations of conditions of confinement began 130 years ago today when journalist Nellie Bly was committed to New York City’s insane asylum, Blackwell’s Island. Bly’s goal was to reveal what life was like behind asylum bars in New York City. Despite the rumors of abuses at the asylum, Bly was reluctant to believe that “such an institution could be mismanaged, and that cruelties could exist ‘neath its roof” until she experienced them firsthand. She checked into a rooming house, concocted a story about having lost her luggage and money, was turned over to the police, and quickly declared insane by a judge. The whole process, from story conception to forcible commitment, took only four days.

During her ten days behind bars on Blackwell’s Island in 1887, Bly witnessed numerous instances of physical and emotional abuse, as well as the inability of staff to provide proper care for the patients. To expose these truths, Bly wrote three articles – Behind Asylum Bars, Inside the Madhouse, and Untruths in Every Line – revealing the institutional mismanagement, abuses, and harsh conditions the patients experienced at Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum.

Bly’s investigative journalism had immediate and long-term impacts on the care provided for people with mental illnesses. The asylum made rapid practice and administrative changes following the publication and a Grand Jury was convened to investigate the reported abuses, leading to real transformation in the oversight, practices, and funding of the asylum.

In our view, investigative journalism is a key part of a functioning democracy and is key to criminal justice reform. Much of our research is designed to empower journalists to tell the story of our criminal justice system in new ways, and we make it a point to highlight the most important investigative stories of the year. (See our list for 2015 and 2016.)

What’s interesting about Bly’s book is not just the subject matter, it is also the foundation for a discussion about how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.


For more on Nellie Bly, see:

For more on mental illness in the criminal justice system, see:

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