Alison Gerber: Reporting uncovers state failures

Alison Gerber: Reporting uncovers state failures

February 10th, 2013 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

People are dying in custody in Tennessee and Georgia and for months the Times Free Press and other newspapers have been trying to answer the most basic question: Why?

Recent reporting that highlighted massive failure of state agencies has pressured top officials out of their jobs and triggered investigations and public outcry. They have also put the Times Free Press and other newspapers at odds with public agencies over public records.

In Tennessee, 31 children who were in the custody of or investigated by the Department of Children's Services died in the first six months of 2012. Department officials admitted they failed to report the deaths to lawmakers, which is required by state law.

In Georgia, four Hays State Prison inmates have been killed by other inmates since Dec. 19.

Now politicians at the highest level have a choice to make: Be the person who fixes the problems or be the obstacle to change.

After DCS refused repeated requests to provide more details on the dead children, Nashville's daily newspaper, The Tennessean, joined by a coalition of a dozen media groups from around the state, including the Chattanooga Times Free Press, filed suit against DCS. The suit seeks access to the records of more than 200 children who since 2009 have died or come close to death while in the agency's care. In January, a Chancery Court judge in Davidson County ordered DCS to turn over records on the children. But last week, DCS attorneys said the agency would charge $55,584.55 to gather and release records of child deaths to the media.

This amount of money is clearly a wall that DCS bureaucrats hope will deter the media from reporting on the deaths. Investigative journalism is often about navigating roadblocks to a complete and fair story.

Across the state line, it has taken weeks to gain access to public records since the recent deaths and attacks at maximum-security Hays State Prison in Trion, Ga. When spokesmen clammed up about the prison not long after the deaths, the Times Free Press kept asking for records, audits and reports.

This week we sent reporter Joy Lukachick to Atlanta to confront officials who haven't returned her calls.

Lukachick's investigation and reporting brought to light serious dangers behind the prison walls. Gangs are out of control. Guards struggle to protect themselves or keep weapons out. Lockdowns are called for, but the locks don't work. And harm spills outside the prison, too.

Families of some inmates said they were forced to pay cash to inmates under threat of violence to their loved ones inside the prison. Photos from inside Hays show beat-downs and inmates showing off collections of shanks.

In these two cases, consistent media scrutiny forced change and underscored the importance of investigative journalism.

On Tuesday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam announced that DCS Commissioner Kate O'Day had stepped down.

On Wednesday, Georgia Department of Corrections Commissioner Brian Owens replaced Clay Tatum, the warden at Hays State.

Now it's up to both states' top officials - the new leaders of DCS and Owens - to correct the problems that resulted in death. And the governors of both states are accountable, too.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said last week in a prepared statement that he is working with corrections officials. Haslam, however, still is defending the state's action in holding on to the records about dead children.

Both men have a choice: fix the problem and be accountable to the public or be part of the problem.