October 21, 2022

By Josh McGhee

Welcome MindSiters,

This is the inaugural edition of “Diagnosis: Injustice,” the MindSite News newsletter exploring the intersection of mental health and criminal justice, written by me, Josh McGhee. I’ve been reporting on criminal justice issues for more than a decade and it’s truly my pleasure to break the fourth wall with you on this imperative topic.

If you like what you read here, please pass it on to a friend and tell them they can subscribe here.

Every month in this newsletter, we’ll take a critical look at the criminal justice system in different parts of America using data, public records, and graphics. Plus, we’ll highlight some of the biggest stories of the month concerning mental health in the criminal justice system.

In this edition, we go behind the scenes of my first investigation for MindSite News, which looked into police response to mental health calls in Chicago, and explored how the transition to 988 may affect that. We’ll dive into the treatment of incarcerated people suffering from mental illness in Pennsylvania jails. And we’ll explore the psychological damage inflicted by solitary confinement in an essay from an incarcerated journalist made possible by our new collaboration with the Prison Journalism Project.

Investigating Illinois

This month we dropped our first investigation — a collaboration with WBEZ and Block Club Chicago — diving into crisis response in Illinois. The investigation began with a simple fact: Illinois had the worst in-state answer rate for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the country. Why? 

The answer was remarkably straightforward: a lack of call centers in our most populous city. While there is one call center in Chicago, until this year its coverage area only included the North Side, and it wasn’t funded to operate 24/7. The gap in coverage, experts told us, meant that a lot of calls were routed to call centers in other states. They were answered, we were told, “as long as the person was willing to stay on the line long enough.” Problem was, a lot of people weren’t. More than one out of five callers hung up before they reached a counselor.

While the lack of a reliable call center is obviously a big issue, it is hard to assess the harm without knowing the need. To determine the parts of Chicago most in need of emergency services for mental health issues, we made a public records request for data containing all calls to 9-1-1 that were flagged as mental health-related over the last two-and-a-half years. To assess the harm, we asked for a log of every incident where police used force. With these two data sets, we were able to determine where people were calling from when they placed 9-1-1 calls for mental health issues, when police responded to these issues with force, and what kinds of force was used. 

We determined that a large percentage of the calls were hailing from the South Side of Chicago. It also showed that when officers handle these calls, the interactions can get violent, especially if you are Black. While two shootings occurred when police responded to mental health calls over the last two-and-a-half years, most of the use-of-force interactions included takedowns or tasers. 

To get a better understanding of these nonfatal interactions, we requested further reports on some of these interactions. Most of the addresses were redacted, but one report – involving a young man in a three-generation family – alerted me to an issue I had been overlooking: that many of these events also end in arrest.

As I read through the report, I found it easy to put myself in the family’s shoes. Their child is acting in a way they don’t understand, they panic, they call the only people they can think of, and things get out of hand – fast. I wanted to know more so I drove to the West Side and knocked on their door. They didn’t answer. I went back to my car, wrote a letter and placed it on their door. I was halfway home when I got a call from the family and turned around.

LISTEN: I spoke with Sasha-Ann Simons, host of WBEZ’s Reset, about our reporting.

WATCH: I spoke with Brandon Pope, host of “On The Block, about our investigation. The weekly television news magazine features neighborhood reporting from our reporting partner Block Club Chicago. Find a time to watch the segment here.

Pepper spray and stun guns in Pennsylvania

An investigation from Brett Sholtis, a reporter with WITF, the NPR station in Harrisburg, found that corrections officers in Pennsylvania jails often use force on people who may be unable to comply with orders due to a mental health condition. 

The investigation follows the arrest of Ishmael Thompson, who would become involved in one of more than 5,000 “use of force” incidents in a struggle with corrections officers last year. The investigation found one in three of these incidents in the last quarter of 2021 involved a person suffering from a mental illness. 

While most of these incidents don’t end in death, Thompson would die in custody.

The dreadful situation for incarcerated people with mental illness was made clear in a survey of 20 Pennsylvania jails conducted by Spotlight PA and the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. The responses made clear that jails lack the resources to address a crisis stemming from a growing number of incarcerated people with serious mental health needs, a lack of medical staff, and a complex system for accessing the few resources available from the state.

15 Stays in Solitary

Illustration by Robert Hill

Jeffrey McKee describes in excruciating detail the anxiety and trauma he continues to suffer from from his numerous stints in solitary confinement in an essay published in partnership with the Prison Journalism Project, a nonprofit that trains incarcerated writers to be journalists and publishes their work.

McKee spent time in “the hole” in prisons in Arizona and Washington and “it ruined me.” He’s now locked up in Florida and continues to suffer from panic attacks and hear whispers, he writes. 

The essay walks us through the history of solitary confinement from the late 1700s to a battle at the Supreme Court 100 years later. While the constitutionality and effectiveness of isolation are constantly debated, data from 2019 shows that on any given day, an estimated 55,000 to 62,500 incarcerated Americans had spent the past 15 days in solitary confinement.

The (Not so) Alternative Response

Bloomberg News also took a look at Chicago, examining an alternative to the traditional 9-1-1 response the city is now piloting. One controversial part of the city’s new Crisis Assistance Response and Engagement (CARE) teams: they still make use of  police. Bloomberg examined the pros and cons of the program.

What to know?  

  • The pilot will test three different approaches. One includes a crisis intervention-trained police officer alongside a paramedic and mental health clinician. Another includes the clinician and paramedic but not the cop. A third, to be rolled out in the coming months, will use a paramedic and a peer support specialist.
  • The teams operate five days a week from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m in four police districts, geographically scattered among the city’s 22 districts.
  • Mayor Lori Lightfoot allocated $3.5 million from her 2022 budget and another $15 million that came largely from the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan for the program.

Thanks for reading and see you next month,

Josh McGhee

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

Staff reporter Josh McGhee covers the intersection of criminal justice and mental health with an emphasis on public records and data reporting. He previously reported for Injustice Watch, the Chicago Reporter,...