Friday, February 24, 2023

By Josh McGhee

Happy Friday MindSiters,

It’s been great hibernating in the home office (though not necessarily warm) for the last few months, but we’re taking the show on the road for a quick tour of the midwest next month. I’ll be speaking on a panel on covering cops, courts, and crime March 4 at a conference on computer-assisted reporting in Nashville.

On March 9, Rob Waters and I will be part of a panel focused on reporting about criminal justice and mental health at the Association of Health Care Journalists conference in St. Louis. 

For this month’s Diagnosis: Injustice newsletter, we spoke with experts about a new study focusing on arrests of those with substance use and mental health disorders. They found nearly 650,000 people with co-occurring disorders are arrested annually and argue that policies should focus on this community to reduce the number of people incarcerated with mental health issues. 

We also explore the story of Anthony Gay via a podcast from Reveal. Gay lives with serious mental illness and was originally sentenced to seven years in prison, but ended up with 97 years added to his sentence. And we take a look at reporting from ProPublica’s local reporting initiative into a problematic state run facility in rural southern Illinois.

Let’s get into it…

Mental health and addiction: a bad combo – and a too-frequent recipe for arrest

A new study from Pew Charitable Trusts finds that one in nine arrests are of people with both mental illness and addiction. While both are considered medical conditions, a disproportionate number of people with these issues end up cycling through jails and prisons, said Tracy Velázquez, an author of the study.

“Addressing the needs of this population could both reduce the use of the criminal justice system and improve outcomes for these individuals and their communities,” she said.

The study also found that women with co-occurring disorders were arrested 19 times more often than women with neither and that Black adults with co-occurring disorders were arrested 1.5 times more often than white adults. Read my full story on the report here.

The story of Anthony Gay

Anthony Gay has struggled with mental illness from a young age and was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. After stealing a hat and a single dollar bill from a guy he got into a fight with, he landed on probation. Then, at 20, he got caught driving without a license and received a seven-year sentence and bounced around prisons throughout Illinois. 

“When you’re put in a cell like that you start to psychologically bounce off the wall. You start craving human attention, social stimulation, and things of the sort, so you become aggravated over the smallest things,” Gay told Shannon Heffernon, lead reporter on WBEZ’s Motive podcast, which examined prison conditions in Illinois.

She discovered Gay while looking into assaults on correctional officers — most of which involved throwing liquids on guards. Gayt became a poster child for how these incidents are prosecuted. He landed in solitary confinement after one of those aggravating moments led to a fight with another inmate. The isolation of solitary confinement exacerbated his mental illness and led him to harm himself, he said. Sometimes he would fight the cell extraction team to “feel alive,” he said.

Once, he threw a brown liquid – he claims it was coffee – at guards, and was charged with battery. Five years were added to his sentence, and Gay spent a lot of his time in isolation in the law library becoming a pretty good jailhouse lawyer. So how did he end up with 97 years added to his sentence? Check out the episode to get the full story.

A culture of cruelty at Illinois mental health facility

Staff at a state run facility for patients with mental illness and developmental disabilities regularly treated patients cruelly, going as far as forcing them to dig through their own feces, according to recent reports from a watchdog office in Illinois.

The documents reveal shocking instances of cruelty, abuse, and poor care for patients at the rural facility in southern Illinois and confirms reporting from Lee Enterprises Midwest, Capitol News Illinois and ProPublica. For months, the outlets have reported on an ongoing crisis at Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center. 

In one report, obtained via public records requests, employees bragged about breaking a patient’s arm and getting away with it; in another they boasted of retaliating against fellow employees who spoke up about abuse. Another details years of concerns about care for patients with pica, a disorder in which people feel compelled to swallow inedible objects. Several nurses said it was common practice to force patients to dig through their own feces with gloved hands to determine if the objects had passed. 

The reports come after a series of stories documenting repeated failures at the facility and a culture of coverups. In September, reporters found the inspector general had investigated more than 1,500 reported incidents of abuse and neglect, though staff rarely faced serious consequences.

WATCH: I was recently featured on a roundtable discussion of Black male journalists on  Chicago Newsroom 2.0 about media coverage of the Tyre Nichol’s fatal beating at the hands of the Memphis Police Department’s SCORPION unit.

If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect in English or Spanish. If you’re a veteran press 1. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing dial 711, then 988. Services are free and available 24/7.

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Type of work:

Josh McGhee is an investigative reporter covering the intersection of criminal justice and mental health with an emphasis on public records and data reporting. He has covered Chicago on various beats for...