Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Florida pols deserve credit for these awards

The Miami Herald owes some recognition to Florida’s political leadership. Without them, we would not have been able to produce some of our finest, award-winning journalism.

After all, it was their lack of oversight and their chintzy budget allocations and their reluctance to mandate meaningful reforms that have made the state’s prison system and child welfare bureaucracy the kind of festering institutions that inspired great investigative reporting.

Last week, Herald reporters who investigated wrenching incidents of institutional neglect won two prestigious awards. Julie Brown won a George Polk Award for Justice Reporting for her series on the systematic abuse — make that torture — of state prison inmates by Florida prison guards. (She shared the award with two New York Times reporters Michael Schwirtz and former Herald staffer Michael Winerip who found similar abuses in New York City jails.)

And the Herald’s Carol Marbin Miller and Audra Burch won the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Journalism's Selden Ring Award for “Innocents Lost,” their exhaustive profiles of 477 Florida children who died of abuse or neglect even after the state’s child protection case workers had confirmed that these kids were being mistreated.

Both series (edited by the Herald’s Casey Frank) entailed great reporting that turned up horrifying details. Julie Brown wrote about how guards regularly tortured state prison inmates with Tasers and pepper spray. Mentally ill Darren Rainey, held in the Dade Correctional Institution, died in a scalding shower closet, where guards had locked him for acting out in exactly the manner one might expect of a mentally ill prisoner.

Carol Marbin Miller and Audra Burch wrote about kids who had been starved, beaten, drowned and murdered — despite supposed oversight by child welfare case workers. Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Children and Families systematically under-reported the deaths of children in their charge.

Last week’s awards only added to the deserved recognition received by both these investigative series. But we couldn’t have done it without that gang in Tallahassee, whose paltry budgets and tepid oversight make these stories nearly inevitable.

Budget cuts nurtured these horror stories.The number of correctional guards has been cut from 19,806 in 2009 to 16,424 last year, while the inmate population had grown from 92,000 to more than 102,000. Add low salaries — guards make about $32,000. Then factor in 12-hour work shifts along with lousy working conditions. It’s a sure mathematical formula for a prison scandal.

Michael Crews, the ousted DOC secretary, told the Herald that the maintenance of state prisons had deteriorated so markedly in recent years that the plumbing, electrical and security systems were constantly failing. Roofs were leaking. All this while staffing levels had fallen to dangerous levels.

Crews told the Herald last month that he could chart spikes in inmate-on-inmate violence and use-of-force incidents by guards by the periods when prison staffing was dangerously below what he said were minimally acceptable levels. (Scott’s new budget proposal would fill about half the 654 vacancies in the department but, conveniently, did not include the $64 million to investigate allegations of criminal wrongdoing within DOC.)

Add another factor to the formula. Crews said the governor’s staff was only interested in tamping down bad publicity, rather than fixing the problems. “I guess you can say they were more concerned with the crafting and writing of news releases and that had little to do with the reality of what needed to be done to keep the institutions safe and secure,’’ Crews told the Herald.

But happy news releases from the governor’s office couldn’t stave off a burgeoning scandal.

The stories out of DCF were just as predictable. After a series of deaths and rapes and beatings in Florida’s foster care system in years past, the state decided to de-emphasize the removal of children from lousy homes while slashing money for programs that might have kept them safe.

It was a cheaper alternative that has led to yet another set of horrors. We’ve now had a decade of odious incidents named for dead children. There was little Bradley McGee and Lucas Ciambrone and Rilya Wilson and Kayla McKean and Nubia Barahona. They were drowned, beaten, starved, tortured and finally murdered in their home settings, while under the home supervision by state case workers — another unpaid, overworked group of state employees.

These were nightmarish stories. But the victims in the DOC and DCF stories were either poor children from lowdown homes or criminals serving time. Nobody with lobbyists. Nobody with any clout when it comes time to trim agency budgets.

Florida’s political leadership, in their awful neglect, created the circumstances that inspired some great journalism. They deserve all the credit. Along with Florida’s voting public, who allowed Tallahassee to get away with this awful kind of governance.

But somehow I don’t think that thanks is quite the right word.

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