Powerful Investigative Report Tracks 404 Deaths Of Inmates With Mental Illnesses In Jails

Photos of inmates with mental illnesses who have died in jails. Courtesy Virginia Pilot newspaper

(8-23-18) The Virginian Pilot newspaper has published an extraordinary series – the first ever comprehensive study that tracks deaths of individuals with mental illnesses in jails. It is entitled: Mental illness is a death sentence for many in America’s jails.

Even those of us who are familiar with the inappropriate jailing of Americans who are sick will be shocked by the newspaper’s reporting and the graphics that accompany it. (Please share the series with your local elected leaders.)

Students from Marquette University helped the newspaper track the deaths of 404 inmates with mental illnesses who have died in jails since 2010. They collected information from all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Here are some headlines from this poignant investigative series:

At least 33 times since 2010, inmates with mental illness have died after their family or friends contacted jails to warn of their loved one’s mental health problems.

Since 2010, at least 178 inmates with a mental illness have died by suicide in jail in the United States — or 44 percent of the 404 deaths tracked in the database.

Of the known deaths of people with mental illness, in 70 cases jail staff used force on the inmate – shocking, pepper-spraying or restraining them, often in some combination.

Of the 404 cases in The Pilot’s database,  families sued the facility or medical provider in at least 214 of them.

Since 2010, at least 18 deaths of mentally ill people in jails across the country have been attributed to a – (my words added here – highly questionable)  condition known as “excited delirium.”

More than 40 percent of the people counted by The Virginian-Pilot as dying in jail with mental illness were segregated from other inmates at the time of their deaths.

The Virginian-Pilot is asking readers to contact it if they know of other instances where inmates have died in custody so that the paper can add those cases to its data base. The newspaper said the actual number of deaths for the period is likely significantly higher than what could be documented through available records.

Reporter Gary Harki led the project while on a nine month long  O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism at Marquette. He was assisted by students Alexandria Bursiek, Rebecca Carballo, and Diana Dombrowski with graphics by Will Houp. Others at the newspaper helped.

Harki’s reporting first caught my attention when he was writing about the preventible death of Virginia inmate Jamycheal Mitchell who died from a heart attack in late 2015 reportedly caused by starvation. Mitchell, who had schizophrenia, had been arrested for stealing $5.05 worth of snacks from a convenience store and was supposed to be sent to a state hospital for evaluation but his paperwork got lost. He died after spending 101 days in the Hampton Roads Regional Jail during which he lost 36 pounds from his initial 180 pound weight when arrested.

Since Mitchell’s death and other Virginia tragedies, the state has been working on improving its mental health system, but it still lags far behind other states when it comes to such basic tools as problem solving courts that funnel inmates with mental illnesses into treatment rather than continuing to have them stuck on a jail-to-streets treadmill.

Thank you Gary Harki, the students, and The Virginia Pilot for continuing to do what journalists do best – shine a spotlight on societal problems. This data base should sound an alarm.

Here is an excerpt from the newspaper’s investigative series.

More than 40 percent of the people counted by The Virginian-Pilot as dying in jail with mental illness were segregated from other inmates and housed in some form of isolation.

Forms of isolation have long been known to exacerbate the symptoms of mental illnesses.

Over half of them died by suicide, unwatched and alone.

That is the story of Amanda Sloan.

Sloan, 30, was an inmate at Santa Cruz County Jail in California. In July 2013, she fashioned a noose out of bed sheets, then removed a poster from the wall of her cell, revealing a pipe she had dug out of the drywall, according to a lawsuit her family filed. She tied the noose around the pipe and hanged herself.

While in isolation she was left “with the means to kill herself barely hidden behind the obviously noncompliant makeshift posters,” the suit alleged.

Hangings were the most common way to die in isolation, accounting for 70 of the 167 isolation cases. The next most common, in only 17 of the cases, was cardiac-related events.

Sloan had given many signs that she was suicidal, the suit alleged. She threatened to kill herself after her husband was murdered in 2012 outside their home and died in her arms.

That trauma, coupled with her arrest, most likely left her fragile, said Ron Honberg senior policy adviser at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“When anyone goes to jail, that’s a shock in itself,” Honberg said. “It’s a period of vulnerability.”

In the Pilot’s database, depression is the third most prevalent mental illness among inmates put in isolation.

Just before she was arrested, Sloan pointed a gun at her head, taunting officers to shoot her. While in jail she was prescribed medications for her bipolar disorder that had the known side effect of prompting suicidal thoughts.

While locked up, Sloan attempted suicide at least twice by slashing her wrists, according to the lawsuit. But still she was put in isolation. It was later discovered that the officers had not done the required number of security checks and had falsified records to make it seem like they had. Sloan’s family settled their lawsuit for $1 million.

Fifty-nine percent of isolation cases ended in a lawsuit, and 40 percent of those ended in a settlement.

Jails cite several reasons for separating inmates from the rest of the population. Sometimes it’s for safety concerns or clinical purposes, but often it’s because of their behavior.

Individuals who suffer from mental illness have difficulty conforming to facility rules, and isolation is often used as a form of punishment, according to the National Commission on Correctional Health Care.

This is what happened to Terrill Thomas. He spent seven days in isolation in Milwaukee County Jail, with the water in his cell shut off.

Terrill acted out and was put in isolation, where he would die alone, naked on the floor.

“They treated his mental illness as a behavioral problem and disciplined him,” said Terrill’s lawyer, Erik Heipt. ”And the way they discipline him was incredibly inhumane.”

Read more here.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.