The story of one man’s incarceration and redemption — and the atypical relationship of a journalist and her source — was awarded journalism’s highest honor on Monday. The staffs of Futuro Media and PRX won a Pulitzer Prize in Audio Reporting for “Suave,” a podcast about juveniles sentenced to spend their whole lives in prison.
In the official announcement, Marjorie Miller – the recently elected administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes – called “Suave” “a brutally honest and immersive profile of a man reentering society after serving more than 30 years in prison.”
The podcast – co-hosted by award-winning journalist Maria Hinojosa and award-winning reporter and producer Maggie Freleng – centers on Pennsylvania man David Luis “Suave” Gonzalez, who in 1988 was found guilty of first-degree homicide. He was a juvenile at the time, sentenced to life in prison without parole. A few years later, in 1993, Hinojosa – then a new radio reporter – met Gonzalez at the Graterford State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania while working on a story. What began as maintaining contact with a source inside the prison system evolved into an unusual decades-long relationship.
“We won a PULITZER!!! #suavepodcast,” Hinojosa tweeted shortly before 4 p.m. Monday. The tweet was accompanied by a video of the thrilled journalist. “Guys. We won a Pulitzer! We won a Pulitzer Prize! We won a Pulitzer for ‘Suave’!” Hinojosa said into the camera, appearing almost incredulous. “What? I didn’t even, I mean it’s like, I never even thought of winning a Pulitzer, and we won a Pulitzer so –”
In 2010, Hinojosa founded Futuro Media, a New York-based independent, nonprofit organization producing multimedia journalism. PRX is a Boston-based non-profit public media company specializing in audio journalism and storytelling.
“I’m on cloud tenth,” Hinojosa told Poynter early Monday evening.
She described a tectonic shift in audio journalism because of the way “Suave” was produced. “Out of everything that they could have chosen to recognize, the fact that they would recognize this kind of production … it’s like Futuro Media is now leading the way in a kind of journalism that is leaving its mark in American history,” Hinojosa said.
Earlier this year, “Suave” won Best Multi-Part Audio Documentary or Series at the 37th Annual International Documentary Association Awards. She described the IDA as a powerful award for their industry.
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“But the Pulitzer is … most people know what a Pulitzer is, and so it’s just really feeling like we’re having an impact on the long arc of American journalism and letters in this country,” she said. “I draw back to Frederick Douglass, who is the beginning of that arc of journalism of conscience. I consider this journalism of conscience because it was such a unique story.”
Julieta Martinelli, a senior producer at Futuro Media and a co-producer of “Suave” along with Freleng, said in a Twitter DM that it is an honor and dream to win a Pulitzer. “But I think for me personally, it means so much more to win it for a story that centers the humanity of people in prisons, people who make mistakes, people who have done things that are painful but who have also been victimized by systemic inequity, racism and generational trauma themselves,” she said.
In her call with Poynter, Hinojosa conferenced in her longtime source and the subject of “Suave” — David Luis “Suave” Gonzalez himself.
“I’m feeling excited and also happy that my friend, my mentor, someone that played a big part in changing my life, took a risk in bringing this story to the masses and is now being recognized at the highest level of journalism,” Suave said in the three-way call. “The story of ‘Suave’ is the story of millions of juvenile lifers caught up in the criminal justice system. So this is not just a win for me, or Maria, and the whole Futuro production team. This is a win for criminal justice reform because, now that the story is at the highest level, it can’t be denied that the system needs to be reformed, and that we need to treat juveniles in a better way when it comes to dealing with the criminal justice system.”
From the opening of “The Sentence,” the series premiere of “Suave,” you can tell Hinojosa has known Suave for a long time.
“What’s going on? Just talk to me. Suave, I’m talking to you. What is going on?” Hinojosa asks.
“I’m cool,” Suave responds. He sounds a bit emotional.
“Suave,” Hinojosa, seemingly sensing that Suave is not OK. “Forget that Maggie’s in the room. Forget that Maggie –”
Moments later, Suave breaks down crying. He says he never thought he’d be locked up in a room like this again. He reiterates that he’s cool.
“I know you’re cool, sweetie. You’re out of prison,” Hinojosa said.
Suave says he had a mental flashback. He tells Hinojosa he had a life sentence.
“But I made it,” he says. “I made it out, so I’m good.”
Then it’s Hinojosa’s turn to get emotional. She points out that it was in this same studio where she would take his calls from prison.
Through the years, Suave continued to reach out to Maria, and she continued to pick up his calls. The first 15 years of their contact was sporadic, but when Hinojosa learned that the Supreme Court might actually take on the case of juvenile lifers, she thought perhaps Suave may find his way out of prison. Suave told Poynter that, when you’re in prison, it gets lonely. He had few people he stayed in contact with on the outside – one of whom was the journalist.
“What kept me in contact was knowing that somebody in the world knows who I was. Even if I was locked away, shut away from everything…” Suave said. “Just to hear a voice of a person in the free world gave me hope. Most of the time, when I called Maria while I was in prison, Maria would be in a different city doing a recording. I would feel like ‘Oh, I’m on the border with Maria. I’m in D.C.’… I’m glad she took my phone calls because it had shown me that my humanity wasn’t really lost.”
Hinojosa said she knew people behind bars were one of the fastest growing populations in the United States. She understood there was a story in Suave’s experience.
“I want that to live in the hearts of young American journalists of conscience because, in this case, I think it was the connection to humanity and our Futuro team being allowed to go there with humanity in the context of deep audio journalism … I think that’s why we won,” she said. “I think we brought the heart.”