Nieman News

The Miami Herald’s “Fight Club” series, which exposed disturbing problems and abuse within Florida’s juvenile justice system, is winner of the 2017 Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism.

Reported by Carol Marbin Miller and Audra D.S. Burch of the Herald’s I-Team, the investigation documented widespread brutality, administrative incompetence and violent beatings, often either ordered or doled out by officers who had risen through the prison system. The series also revealed fights staged for entertainment, wagering or to exert control; sex between staff and youthful detainees; and a culture of see-nothing/say-nothing denial.

The Herald’s investigation began shortly after 17-year-old Elord Revolte was beaten to death at the Miami juvenile detention center. In the course of their work, the Herald journalists examined 12 other questionable deaths of detained youths since 2000.

The research for the series was exhaustive: The reporting team obtained and analyzed 10 years of data from four state agencies. Using those findings, the reporters requested more than 600 incident reports, many detailing substantiated allegations of excessive or unnecessary force, inappropriate conduct with youths or medical neglect. They also obtained hundreds of completed investigations into those charges.

The Herald went on to merge records from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) with the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) hiring database to identify former guards and police officers overseeing children.

The team reviewed other DJJ records, police, criminal and civil court records, FDLE arrest histories, prison records and autopsy reports that painted a grim picture of daily life inside Florida’s juvenile justice system. Reporters also interviewed dozens of DJJ administrators, administrators from other states, private providers, consultants, judges, prosecutors, defenders, lawyers, university professors and former youth workers, as well as families of the victims of abuse who had trusted the broken system to rehabilitate their children, for their stories.

This is the second time that the Herald and reporters Carol Marbin Miller and Audra D.S. Burch have won the Worth Bingham Prize. They received the award for their 2014 series “Innocents Lost,” which examined the deaths of hundreds of children in Florida over a six-year period.

“Fight Club” has led to a number of important reforms:

  • The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice overhauled its hiring practices, requiring that new agency hires be properly vetted, including pulling records from sister agencies where candidates previously worked, something it had not done in the past.
  • The DJJ secretary created an Office of Youth and Family Advocacy, and is appointing an agency ombudsman to investigate complaints from parents and advocate on behalf of detained youths.
  • The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office announced it would present the findings of “Fight Club” to a grand jury to investigate juvenile justice and make recommendations for reform.
  • Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed the Florida Legislature’s 2019 budget, which provides funding for a number of improvements, including a 10 percent pay increase—the first in a decade—for state juvenile justice employees; $2 million for one-time retention bonuses for staffers in the privately run residential centers; $5.3 million in new funding for building maintenance in detention centers; $1 million for new surveillance equipment; $6.1 million for added beds; and $9.1 million to expand early intervention programs aimed at keeping youths out of the system.
  • As a result of the Herald’s reporting about deplorable conditions in youth detention centers, Florida lawmakers unanimously passed a bill, signed by the governor, that allows lawmakers, prosecutors and public defenders to make unannounced visits to DJJ lockups and youth programs. The law also prohibits those DJJ facilities from denying entry to reporters.

The team members who produced the series are: senior investigative reporter Carol Marbin Miller; senior enterprise writer Audra D.S. Burch; senior editor/investigations and enterprise Casey Frank; senior editor/digital Eddie Alvarez; interactive storyteller Aaron Albright; social media director Noel Gonzalez; visuals editor Orlando Mellado; video lead Justin Azpiazu; visual journalist Emily Michot; video editor Matias Ocner; photographer Charles Trainor Jr.; McClatchy digital creative director Jessica Gilbert; data analysis Damian Franco; graphics artist; Marco Ruiz; news developer Kara Dapena; director of information services Monika Leal; data analysis and fact checking Elizabeth Koh; transcription and fact checking Samantha Gross; copy editor Mary Behne; print designer Luis F. Castro; and section editor Alex Mena.

In choosing “Fight Club” for the Worth Bingham Prize, judge Denise-Marie Ordway said: “I was impressed with the level of detail the reporting team was able to obtain. They showed time and again that people in authority were doing horrible things to kids or bribing these young prisoners to do horrible things to one another. As a journalist who spent 15-plus years reporting in Florida, I can appreciate the level of difficulty involved in this series. It made me care and feel outrage over what these young men had to experience and how their lives might be different today had more people within Florida’s criminal justice system been held accountable.”

Judge Debra Adams Simmons added: “This report drives home the urgency and importance of solid local investigative reporting. The relentless shoe leather reporting included a deep synthesis of data paired with gut-wrenching anecdotes and excellent use of live video to unearth and expose abuses in the local juvenile justice system.”

The $20,000 Bingham Prize will be presented to the Miami Herald on May 3, 2018, at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

The seven journalists who judged the Bingham submissions received this year are: Michael Berens, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter from the Chicago Tribune who won the Bingham Prize in 2016 and 2010; Christa Case Bryant, heartland reporter for The Christian Science Monitor and a 2016 Nieman Fellow; Tyler Dukes, an investigative reporter at WRAL News in Raleigh, N.C., and a 2017 Nieman Fellow; Denise-Marie Ordway, the managing editor of Journalist’s Resource at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy and a 2015 Nieman Fellow; Debra Adams Simmons, executive editor/culture at National Geographic and a 2016 Nieman Fellow; Stuart Watson, an investigative reporter based in Charlotte, N.C., and a 2008 Nieman Fellow; and Christine Willmsen, an investigative reporter with The Seattle Times and a 2016 Nieman Fellow.

The Worth Bingham Prize honors investigative reporting of stories of national significance where the public interest is being ill-served. Worth Bingham, who died at the age of 34, achieved prominence as an investigative journalist and was vice president and assistant to the publisher for the Louisville Courier-Journal. He was a 1954 Harvard University graduate. His family and friends created the annual prize in his memory in 1967.

The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard educates leaders in journalism and elevates the standards of the profession through special programs that convene scholars and experts in all fields. More than 1,500 journalists from 96 countries have been awarded Nieman Fellowships since 1938. The foundation’s other initiatives include Nieman Reports, a website and quarterly print magazine that covers thought leadership in journalism;  Nieman Journalism Lab, a website that reports on the future of news, innovation and best practices in the digital media age; and Nieman Storyboard, a website that showcases exceptional narrative journalism and explores the future of nonfiction storytelling.