Florida newspapers win Pulitzer Prize for investigation of Florida mental health system

Award for reporting on Florida psychiatric hospitals
Investigative journalism award for reporting on Florida psychiatric hospitals

The Tampa Bay Times and Saratoga Herald-Tribune were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism April 18 for its year-long investigation into Florida’s network of state-run mental health hospitals.

Florida’s state-funded mental hospitals are supposed to be safe places to house and treat people who are a danger to themselves or others,” Part 1 of the series began. “But years of neglect and $100 million in budget cuts have turned them into treacherous warehouses where violence is out of control and patients can’t get the care they need.

“Since 2009, violent attacks at the state’s six largest hospitals have doubled. Nearly 1,000 patients ordered to the hospitals for close supervision managed to injure themselves or someone else. For years, the state Legislature, the governor’s office and the agencies that oversee Florida’s mental hospitals ignored the chaos and continued cutting. Then state regulators hid the full extent of violence and neglect from the public.”

For the series, titled “Insane. Invisible. In Danger,” lead reporters Leonara LaPeter Anton, Michael Braga and Anthony Cormier assembled a comprehensive database of injuries and violent attacks inside the state’s six mental institutions, which nearly 5,000 people pass through each year. They found that state employees severely underreported – by more than half – the number of such incidents to the state, which only requires them to report incidents where people are subsequently transported to other facilities.

Since 2009, the state has slashed its workforce at the hospitals by more than a third, leaving the hospitals severely understaffed, as detailed in the five-part series. With less supervision, violence at the facilities has spiked.

“It’s easy for hospital administrators and (Department of Children and Families) officials to ignore the dangerous situations they have created. They face virtually no repercussions,” the papers reported. “At least four times in five years, the Agency for Health Care Administration or DCF’s Inspector General found that administrators put patients and employees in harm’s way because their hospitals weren’t properly staffed.

“No administrators were fired. AHCA levied a total of $2,500 in fines.”

More than half the people admitted to these facilities are people deemed unable to stand trial in criminal proceedings. At a cost of approximately $53,000 per defendant, most of whom were charged with nonviolent crimes, patients spend more than two hours a day learning how to navigate the courtroom, far more than they spend receiving therapeutic services.

Florida, which ranks 49th in state mental health spending, rejected the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, which would have provided a significant new source of funding for community based services, which likely would have kept many of these individuals from entering the state hospital system in the first place.

In response to the series, the Florida Legislature added $16 million to the state’s mental hospitals’  budget and $42 million to improve community programs geared toward mental health.

“It’s hard, really hard, to win a Pulitzer Prize. Unbelievable to win two,” said Neil Brown, editor of the Tampa Bay Times, which also won the local reporting prize for its on racial inequity in the state’s public schools, in a news release. “This is a great honor and recognition of the Times’ commitment to its community.”