Inquirer and Daily News reporter receives award for distinguished coverage of black life

Mensah M. Dean, a reporter for the Inquirer and Daily News, has been awarded the 2017 Vernon Jarrett Medal for Journalistic Excellence for a series of articles on a Pennsylvania state prison inmate who was kept in solitary confinement for 37 years.

The $10,000 award, administered by the School of Global Journalism and Communication at Morgan State University in Baltimore, recognizes work that is “of significant importance or had a significant impact on some aspect of black life in America.”

Dean’s stories focused on Arthur Johnson, who is serving a life sentence for a 1970 murder in Philadelphia and was placed in solitary confinement in a 7- by 12-foot cell after two escape attempts in 1979.

In a prison interview with Dean in July 2016, Johnson said, “I done forgot how it feels to touch another person.”

Last September, a federal judge ruled that Johnson’s “institutional exile” in an “area smaller than the average horse stall” had to end. In January, Johnson was returned to the general population.

Dean was nominated by Brete Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center, who said the stories “provided a haunting glimpse of how the state buries people inside the prison system without the regard to the immense psychological toll it takes on them and their families.”

“In putting a media spotlight on the nearly four decades that Arthur Johnson was held in solitary confinement, Mensah Dean humanized the convicted murderer – and exposed a system of injustice within the correctional system to which he had been sent for the rest of his life,” said Gloria Gibson, Morgan State’s provost.

Dean, a graduate of Maryland’s Bowie State University, said he was honored to be recognized by a sister historically black university.

“In his career and lifetime, Vernon Jarrett used journalism to examine race relations and to uplift African Americans, which are goals that I share,” said Dean, who was presented the award at a ceremony Thursday at the National Press Club in Washington.

Jarrett was a pioneering African American journalist who in 1970 became the first black syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He died in 2004.

Dean is the third recipient of the award. The others were Kirsten West Savali, a writer, cultural critic and associate editor for the Root, an online magazine, and Stacey Patton, a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education.