Behind the Miami Herald‘s ‘inescapably powerful’ juvenile justice investigation

Via Pixabay

IN AUGUST 2015, a security camera captured footage of 17-year-old Elord Revolte standing beside an interior wall at the Miami-Dade Regional Juvenile Detention Center. As the camera recorded, another teenager—dressed like Revolte, in khaki pants and a maroon polo shirt—lunged at him, landing a blow on Revolte’s jaw. In an instant, a dozen similarly outfitted teens leaped out of their chairs and joined the beatdown.

Within two days of the attack, Revolte died from his injuries. Though his death was ruled a homicide, no one was ever charged. Juvenile detainees later alleged that a staffer had instigated the fight; one claimed that Revolte’s assailants “were offered food and extra phone calls as rewards.”

ICYMI: Prominent journalists accused of sexual misconduct

Footage of Revolte’s assault anchors Fight Club, a multimedia investigative series by the Miami Herald focused on Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice. The Herald investigation revealed a system rife with problems: Staffers organized and bet on fights between kids; workers were hired despite their criminal backgrounds; 12 juvenile detainees died in state care since 2000. Guards earn starting salaries of $19,000 to $25,000 per year.

Over and over again, poorly qualified corrections workers baited detainees into fighting, often by dangling food: Snickers bars, Chinese food, and honey buns from vending machines. Guards were found to have sexually abused or begun relationships with detainees. When detainees got hurt or sick, staff was slow to attend to their injuries. Juvenile detention workers were rarely held to account, and problems persisted in juvenile corrections facilities run by the government as well as those run by private companies contracted with the state.  

Fight Club was published online October 10, and in print on Sunday, October 15, as a pull-out section with 25 stories. Online, Fight Club included nearly a dozen additional stories, along with a powerful selection of security camera footage. In one video clip, a staffer officiates a fight between two youths; in another, a worker cuts the lights so a roomful of kids can pounce on a boy with cookies. One camera recorded a shirtless teenager pounding on his peer while, feet away, an adult nonchalantly mops the floor.

Sign up for weekly emails from the United States Project

ICYMI: We spoke to ordinary people about fake news. What they qualify as a false story is notable.

Carol Marbin Miller, the Herald’s senior investigative reporter, had previously uncovered injustices and deaths at juvenile detention centers throughout the state. Several of those incidents are recounted again in Fight Club and combined with additional stories to give the Herald investigation a critical heft. Readers could clearly see the violence and neglect as dangerous patterns, rather than isolated incidents.

“I had written about [problems in the system] extensively, and nothing had changed,” Marbin Miller tells CJR. “Then we started hearing about this crazy thing called ‘honey bunning.’”

 

What they didn’t anticipate was that they were going to be mistreated at the same time they were supposed to be rehabilitated. They were telling us the same story over and over again… awful things.

 

THE YEAR BEFORE REVOLTE’S DEATH, Marbin Miller and her colleague Audra D.S. Burch published Innocents Lost, an investigative series that scrutinized nearly 500 cases in which children had died despite having had contact with Florida’s Department of Children and Families. The series won numerous investigative reporting awards and prompted sweeping legislative changes in the state.

After Marbin Miller received a tip about Revolte’s death and exposed it, more sources came forward alleging that juvenile justice guards regularly baited kids into serving as backup security or fighting for entertainment. Marbin Miller convinced Herald Investigations Editor Casey Frank that the Florida DJJ deserved the same level of attention as Innocents Lost.

On the Fight Club homepage, Marbin Miller and her colleagues detail their hunt for documents, which ultimately filled three bankers’ boxes and a massive Google Drive:

The Herald analyzed 10 years of data covering use-of-force reports, child abuse investigations, DJJ inspector general investigations, law enforcement certification records, employee background screenings and lawsuit notices. Guided by this data, reporters requested more than 600 incident reports, mostly detailing substantiated allegations of excessive or unnecessary force, inappropriate conduct with youths or medical neglect. The Herald then procured hundreds of completed investigations. 

The FDLE records were merged with the hiring database to identify former guards and police officers now overseeing children. Reporters reviewed an assortment of other DJJ records, including surveillance videos, victim and witness statements, inspections, letters from public defenders, personnel files and statements from employees.

One of Marbin Miller’s breakthroughs came from using a spreadsheet to compare a list of corrections officers who’d been terminated by the state against a list of staffers working at Florida juvenile facilities run by private corporations. Marbin Miller found that many guards easily migrated to the private companies’ payrolls, even after they were deemed unemployable by the state.

Carol Marbin Miller. Photograph by Deirdra Funcheon.

Marbin Miller also requested Notices of Intent to Sue filed against the DJJ. Notices revealed those cases that had gone to court, as well as instances in which plaintiffs had settled. “I used the letters as a tip sheet, then spent a month or two calling every lawyer,” Marbin Miller says. One lawyer handed over 700 pages of discovery, which led Marbin Miller to parties involved in the case and a wealth of detail for the story.

As the case files piled up, Marbin Miller and Frank brought in Burch, who co-authored Innocents Lost and is known for her storytelling abilities. Burch interviewed parents who acknowledged to her that their children had committed criminal offenses.

“So many of these mothers and fathers and grandparents knew their children had done something wrong,” says Burch. “But what they didn’t anticipate was that they were going to be mistreated at the same time they were supposed to be rehabilitated. They were telling us the same story over and over again… awful things.”

Marbin Miller says DJJ was remarkably cooperative in turning over records, including video. She began requesting copies of security footage—part of the public record, thanks to Florida’s strong open-records laws—after noticing a reference to it in a report. The agency blurred much of the footage in order to protect the identities of the juveniles, but in some instances honored the Herald‘s requests to re-edit video and provide less blurry versions. DJJ Secretary Christine Daly sat for a two-hour on-camera interview with the Herald.

“To their credit, DJJ was very transparent,” says Marbin Miller.

ICYMI: The NYT tweet on books by women that “didn’t play well”

By contrast, private contractors “redacted the crud out of” records they provided to the Herald, and ignored interview requests, Marbin Miller says. Such companies can dodge accountability while reaping great profit from taxpayers. One security company—G4S, among the largest publicly traded companies in the world—was paid $40 million over five years to run a Florida youth camp that the Herald noted was in disrepair. The Herald estimated G4S profits for one year of business at roughly $800,000.

Burch and Marbin Miller began writing fairly late in the process, while other staffers helped with print and digital layouts and social media strategy. Though Burch left the Herald in the spring to become a national correspondent for The New York Times, she and Marbin Miller share a byline for each story in the series.

 

What it tells the world is that your eyes are not lying. You are seeing exactly what you’re seeing.

 

MARBIN MILLER ACKNOWLEDGES that it’s rare in today’s journalistic climate to be afforded the time and funds for deeply reported projects. Frank, the investigations editor, says the project had cost “many thousands of dollars” in public records expenses, but “the Herald has been very good about opening its wallet” for investigations deemed worthy. At publication, a banner ad for Fight Club still appears on the Herald’s homepage.

Frank also notes how close these stories came to never being told at all.

“Carol was the one who, years ago, first heard that a kid had died over there,” he says of Revolte’s death. “Had she not written about it, it wouldn’t have been a matter of public discourse. It would have been, ‘Oh, somebody died,’ and it would have been ignored.”

After the series ran, Florida’s DJJ initially argued that the Herald “blatantly neglects to recognize DJJ’s years of aggressive, innovative reform efforts and nationally recognized success serving Florida’s youth and communities.” (The Herald published DJJ’s full response, which charges that the paper “omits facts, [and] ignores reforms.”) But days later, Daly, the department secretary, announced that she would create the office of an in-house ombudsman, who will lead an “Office of Youth and Family Advocacy” and engage with detainees and their families. The stories also triggered action from state legislators, who formed a panel to investigate incidents reported by the Herald and will propose regulatory changes to state law. Spurred by the Herald, state lawmakers toured one juvenile detention center and found its conditions, in the words of one representative, “horrific, horrible, deplorable.”

“What we learned from Innocents Lost is that so much of the power from these projects stems from the volume, from doing it all together,” says Burch. “It’s not isolated. That’s the message.”

The Herald’s multimedia treatment bolstered the impact of Fight Club, says Burch. “What it tells the world is that your eyes are not lying. You are seeing exactly what you’re seeing. The images paired with the words—it’s inescapably powerful. Non-negotiably powerful.”

ICYMI: Newspaper publishes shocking teacher investigation

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Deirdra Funcheon is a freelance journalist based in Miami. Formerly, she was on the investigative team at Fusion and served as the Managing Editor at New Times.