How we did it
A look behind the reporting
Alethia Jones is serving life in a Florida prison for her role in a $20 drug deal. Featured in a Sarasota Herald-Tribune investigation in 2017, Jones long struggled with a forceful crack addiction, with little access to help.
Two years later, one aspect of her story continued to resonate with reporters.
Because she was serving life, Jones said prison officials denied her repeated attempts for education. The programs were instead for offenders nearing release.
Journalists at the Herald-Tribune wondered why. Had she gotten these opportunities following earlier arrests could she have avoided the same fate? And how many others struggled to get into these educational programs while incarcerated?
Reporting for the project began when Herald-Tribune reporter Ryan McKinnon received an $8,000 grant from the Education Writers Association last year to pursue a story on inmate education.
The idea at first was to focus on a state law allowing the boards for various trades to bar former offenders from getting licenses because of their felony records. But it soon became clear the story was much bigger, and GateHouse Media’s Florida investigations desk joined the project in late December to help with the digging and data analysis.
Reporters began by researching the importance of education on reducing recidivism, learning as much as possible about the programs available, changes throughout the years, who was getting into these courses and what exactly the curriculums entailed.
The newspaper also wanted to test the correlation between the decline of inmate education, persistent staffing woes within the agency and a recent explosion of violence.
Reporters filed a dozen public records requests with the Florida Department of Corrections for data on educational awards, assaults, inmate transfers and annual prison payrolls since the start of fiscal year 2008-09.
The state returned dozens of Excel spreadsheets and PDFs in varying formats. Journalists converted the PDFs, reformatted all the data to match, and ran analysis tools on the spreadsheets, using the results to build a table of programming in every Florida prison.
As part of the reporting, journalists also crossed the state to visit prisons and interview more than 100 sources to ensure the results from the data matched the reality on the ground. That included JPay email messages to dozens of inmates at Polk Correctional Institution alone.
What they found was one in three state inmates reads below a sixth grade level, two in three lack a high school diploma and fewer are earning basic educational credits. During the past eight years, the number of inmates who completed GEDs in Florida prisons dropped by more than 60 percent.
The prisons with the most educational opportunities were among the safest, especially at women’s facilities. And even though a disproportionate number of state inmates are black, white prisoners were more likely to graduate from these programs.
Experts say the disparities — and overall lack of emphasis on education — perpetuate the crisis of mass incarceration and the cost to taxpayers.
All of the data and methodology can be accessed at GitHub.
“WASTED MINDS” TEAM:
Ryan McKinnon — Reporter, Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Josh Salman — Reporter and Editor, GateHouse Media
Thomas Bender — Photo and Video, Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Jennifer Borresen — Data Visualizations Editor, GateHouse Media
Dak Le — News Engineering Manager, GateHouse Media
Michael Braga — Regional Investigations Editor, GateHouse Media
Emily Le Coz — National Data Editor, GateHouse Media
Kat Dow — Copy Editor, Sarasota Herald-Tribune