Tracking deaths in custody in America’s jails

About Emily Willingham

Emily Willingham (@ejwillingham) is AHCJ's core topic leader on the social determinants of health. She is a science journalist whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, and Forbes, among others, and co-author of "The Informed Parent: A Science-Based Guide to Your Child's First Four Years."

Photo: Paul Robinson via Flickr

Gary Harki of The Virginian-Pilot came to his team’s sweeping series on mental illness, death and U.S. jails by way of a single incident: a young man who died in jail from direct neglect and bureaucratic incompetence for the crime of stealing a zebra cake and a Mountain Dew from a local convenience store.

The young man, Jamycheal Mitchell, had both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and his death, Harki says, was “just appalling,” especially as Mitchell was supposed to have been transferred to a mental health care facility. That incident led Harki to wonder how often people like Mitchell met this fate in America’s jails. And from that, the “Jailed in Crisis” series was born.

It is a tour de force of data visualization, interactives, narrative and a painstakingly built database of information about the 404 people with known mental illness who have died in U.S. jails since 2010. Each person has a story, but for the narratives and video, Harki and the team – Marquette University students Alexandria Bursiek, Rebecca Carballo and Diana Dombrowski and graphics editor Will Houp – the challenge was pulling out those stories, collectively and individually. Over the course of a year, they FOIA’d and phoned and visited survivors — both family and friends of those who had died and people who themselves had survived near misses in the jails — and pieced together the stories behind these tragedies.

In their new “How I Did It” Q&A, the team members (except Bursiek, who is on her honeymoon) describe how they dealt with the various challenges involved in wrangling a national story covering hundreds of people into a compelling series with stunning and effective data visualization and interactives. They also talk about how they determined whose stories to highlight, how they looked for patterns in the data, and how they navigated the sensitive task of interviewing people who have survived the trauma of loss.

And, they talk about how they managed their own human responses to the horrors that they uncovered in the course of their investigation. Journalism as a team activity holds advantages, and this series attests to the benefits of having several hands digging for details and data and being there to buffer against the burnout of repeatedly engaging with human tragedy.

Leave a Reply