Records review prompts long-term project for Oklahoma reporter

Susan Heavey

About Susan Heavey

Susan Heavey, (@susanheavey) a Washington, D.C.-based journalist, is AHCJ’s topic leader on social determinants of health and curates related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on resources and tip sheets at determinants@healthjournalism.org.

Photo: Chris Landsberger, courtesy of The OklahomanAn inmate talks on the phone in the men’s mental health unit at the Oklahoma County Jail.

Jaclyn Cosgrove, a health writer at The Oklahoman in Oklahoma City, was sorting through jail inspection reports from the state when something struck her about a significant number of them.

They were not just run-of-the-mill prisoners. Their health problems, particularly mental illness, were pervasive and hard to ignore. Instead of receiving health care from medical providers and institutions in their communities, scores of Oklahomans – particularly those with mental illnesses – had been incarcerated and were now relying on the criminal justice system to receive care.

Reading through the records, Cosgrove also saw the growing pattern of increasing treatment for the mentally ill amid incarceration. That revelation prompted a deeper inquiry that became a year-long investigation into the cost and effectiveness of relying on prisons to care for so many mentally-ill people.

“I was just incredibly shocked by the conditions that were there and by how people with mental illnesses were treated,” she said in an audio segment accompanying her four-part series, “A Broken System,” which began in November 2016. “We essentially turned patients into inmates.”

Cosgrove, an AHCJ member and a past recipient of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism, said that taking the time to report and write such an involved story – complete with audio and photos – was important to show her readers the repercussions of the current system. It also was important for readers to gain a clearer idea of what was happening around them, she said.

“I wanted people to understand the diversion opportunity that Oklahoma was missing by not keeping people out of jails who have mental illnesses,” she said.

Cosgrove, who began her work as a health reporter at The Oklahoman in early 2012, previously wrote about women in prison for Oklahoma Watch, a nonprofit journalism organization. Check out her new “How I Did It” article for AHCJ.

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