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2019 Explanatory Reporting, Medium Newsroom finalist

Jailed in Crisis: Mental illness in America’s Jails

About the Project

In a first-of-its-kind investigation, the Virginian-Pilot tracked down more than 400 cases across the country in which people with mental illness died in jails, documenting the scope of a tragedy that’s been unfolding for decades: too many people are being jailed instead of treated and many are dying in horrific ways and under preventable circumstances.

The patterns found in the database are striking:

  • At least 41 percent of those who died were in isolation or recently had been.
  • 44 percent of the deaths were by suicide, which can often be prevented with close monitoring.
  • In more than 70 cases (with the latest update), inmates were shocked with a Taser or stun gun, pepper-sprayed or restrained – often in some combination – before dying.
  • In at least 11 percent of the cases, family or friends warned the jail that their loved one had a mental illness.

Officials and advocates were stunned. Not only did the investigation show the patterns of neglect, it also brought to light how dire the problem is and how little it has been studied.

It all started in August 2015 when Jamycheal Mitchell, 24, starved to death in the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth, Va., after being arrested for stealing a Mountain Dew and a Zebra cake. He’d long suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and though he was ordered twice to a state hospital, he was left to languish in a cell in isolation until he starved to death.

Pilot reporter Gary Harki wanted to know how that could’ve happened. He was surprised to find dozens of others just as troubling throughout the country. His reporting on Mitchell’s death eventually led to a U.S. Justice Department investigation into how the jail treats inmates, especially those with mental illness.

In 2017, then-Virginian-Pilot editor Steve Gunn asked Harki to apply for the O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism at Marquette University to further study the issue of jails and mental health. Harki was awarded the fellowship and spent the 2017-18 school year working with Marquette students on this series.

To capture the scope of the problem, Harki wanted to find a database of the cases in which someone with mental illness died in a jail. But no such resource existed, and few states track such cases. Harki and his students realized they’d have to build the database themselves.

First, they contacted each state to find out whether officials kept a list of jail deaths in which the inmate had been diagnosed with mental illness. Only Texas had detailed data. A few states offered limited information. Most provided nothing. In addition, Harki also contacted the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, which gave him access to its limited data on such deaths through the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research data enclave at the University of Michigan. Finally, Harki and the team crawled through page after page of Google searches, looking for accounts of circumstances surrounding deaths behind bars.