The Tampa Bay Times, meanwhile, has been monitoring the situation in Hernando County, north of Tampa, where three years ago the local sheriff took over jail administration from a private contractor and has managed to run the jail with fewer staffers, even though most of the private company’s employees applied for jobs. The sheriff’s major who led the take-over rejected most of those employees, telling the Times, “Frankly, I don’t understand why a few of them weren’t in jail.” (Hernando County followed the lead of Bay County, in the Panhandle, which dumped the same private contractor a few years ago in favor of public management.)
Officials in both counties say the sheriffs can save taxpayers money, while offering inmates better services. While Hernando County is still sorting out its problems with the jail, it would be interesting to know if Bay County has found that the sheriff did save taxpayers money. Both counties had to invest in infrastructure when they took over, after they claimed the private contractor failed to maintain the facilities.
Meanwhile, Escambia County—bordering Alabama—is preparing to take over its jail from its sheriff after the Department of Justice found dangerous and even unconstitutional conditions there. Until recently, for example, there was an informal policy to segregate prisoners by race.
The state of Florida is moving to privatize 30 prisons in South Florida, asking for bids this week for what will be a $285 million-plus project. The process bears watching.
Of course, public prison and jail operations also merit journalistic scrutiny, something like the enterprising work done this year by Joy Lukachick at the Chatanooga Times Free Press. Her investigation into problems at a prison in North Georgia uncovered critical issues in that facility and statewide. For example, inmates at Hays State Prison could unlock their cells with toilet paper, Lukachick found. And, they were using contraband cellphones to extort people on the outside, demanding money from the relatives of other inmates. Lukachik’s investigation started with the death of an inmate whose girlfriend said she’d received a text instructing her to send $300 or the man would be killed.
“They continued to die, as I was writing, which was horrible, but it kept me digging into it and writing more,” said Lukachick.
She was given four months to pursue problems at Hays State Prison and around the state. Lukachick has recently moved to the city government beat, but she plans to continue covering the problems at Hays State. “I think one of the reasons prison coverage has fallen off at newspapers is it’s a huge time investment,” she said. “You have to really work to get inside sources who will talk to you and really be committed to protecting them.”
She echoed what Cindy Chang, now of the Los Angeles Times, has been saying since she was the lead reporter in 2012 on a prize-winning 8-part series investigating Louisiana prisons for The Times-Picayune.
“There’s no secret to it,” Chang told me in a recent interview. “It’s just having the data and finding the people who will talk to you.”
Chang worked on the Times-Picayune investigation for a full year, uncovering an entire mini-economy based on rural sheriffs trading prisoners to keep their lock-ups full of state inmates that the state would pay them for. Chang said the big city newspapers often miss stories in rural prisons because they don’t dedicate the resources to coverage beyond their cities.
“We were the paper of New Orleans and we just didn’t have the resources statewide,” she said. “The action is in the rural areas, but it affected our people who were sent there.”
Chang said she approached investigating the prisons like she would investigating schools. “It’s a very controlled environment, but you can get tours, you can get in,” she said.
And more reporters should try.
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