America needs journalists

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OPINION — Rarely are lawmakers across the political spectrum so unified. And rarely do they act so rapidly.

As we commemorate National Newspaper Week, I’ve been considering the question why America Needs Journalists. My thoughts seem to always return to a 16-year-old Tennessee girl.

And injustice.

A couple of years ago, my team at The Tennessean in Nashville launched an extensive investigative project.

Under an arcane state law that was virtually unchanged since 1858, people awaiting trial in Tennessee county jails could be shipped to state prison if a judge deemed the local jail “insufficient” to handle their medical problems, mental illness or behavioral issues.

In a state with 95 counties, even today most of them rural, this thought-process might seem to have merit. Who would expect small counties to have the advanced resources of a metropolitan setting? And the training? And then there’s the cost.

Judges routinely remanded those detained for “safekeeping” elsewhere.

They were kept in solitary confinement.

Without ever having been convicted of a crime, these “safekeepers” were sometimes locked up for years. The medical “problem” for some was that they were pregnant. Many were sick. And, worst of all, some were children.

Our investigation, done in conjunction with The Marshall Project, not only led to sweeping legal change, it revealed the state was housing minors awaiting trial in adult prisons — including one 16-year-old girl who was shackled when allowed outside her cell to shower three times a week. For two hours a day, she received her education through a pie hole in her small cell. For 23 hours a day, she lived in a small cell. Alone.

From January 2011 through 2017, more than 320 people in Tennessee were declared safekeepers, with 86 in 2017 alone. The law, intended to relieve a financial burden on local jails and get vulnerable pre-trial detainees care not available in small towns, shocked lawmakers who had never before heard of the practice.

The state had no formal process to review the prisoners’ status. The average stay was 328 days, according to state records. Local judges were unaware of the consequences of their orders and assumed prisoners were receiving specialized care.

Following exhaustive reporting which included numerous public records requests, database reporting, interviews with family members, law enforcement and attorneys, and painstaking communication with inmates via the postal service, the hidden truth about safekeeping emerged.

We learned many of the children came from families that had no resources for bail. Such was the case for Rosalyn Holmes, who faced a dubious felony charge. What was known for certain was that her family did not have the means to post a $60,000 bond. So that made her a Safekeeper, which also meant she was placed in an adult prison more than 50 miles away from her home in Memphis.

Immediately following the publication of the first of what became a series of investigative stories, former Gov. Bill Haslam called on legislators to make changes to the system. They came together quickly to do so.

“It’s one of those things that literally I didn’t know how it worked,” the governor said at the time. “We’re trying to look to see what we can do with those juveniles — nobody would say it’s a good idea to have a juvenile end up in solitary confinement in an adult prison.”

In fact, the governor said, it made “no sense.”

Our investigation was published in February. By May, the governor signed a bill banning juveniles awaiting trial in adult prisons and mandating a judicial review every 30 days of all safekeeping orders.

At the same time, the head of Tennessee’s prison system announced an end to arbitrarily placing all safekeepers in solitary confinement. Instead, prisons began to evaluate each safekeeper individually before deciding their status.

About the same time, Rosalyn Holmes was released on bail. A human rights group had paid for her bond. She went back to school, got a part-time job. She lived with her family.

Last month, all charges against Holmes were dismissed. She was never indicted.

America needs journalists because stories like these need to be told. Injustice abounds.

Michael A. Anastasi is vice president and editor of The Tennessean in Nashville and regional editor of the USA TODAY Network in the South. The Los Angeles News Group won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Local Reporting under his leadership.

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