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'Human Toll of Jail' Project Highlights Unique Stories of Mental Health Issues, Recidivism

By Keri Blakinger 03/01/16

The Vera Institute of Justice has launched a national storytelling project about the uses and abuses of jails in the United States.

'Human Toll of Jail' Project Highlights Unique Stories of Mental Health Issues, Recidivism
Photo via Shutterstock/Barone Firenze

It started as a two-year pilot program, but the New Orleans mental illness diversion court has proved that it is a step in the right direction for mental health care.

Though the court seeks to improve outcomes for those with mental health issues and criminal justice involvement, its creator, Judge Desiree Charbonnet, recognized that a court alone couldn’t solve the overarching problem at hand. That’s why she partnered with the grant-funded Community Alternatives Program, which connects those in need with the treatment, healthcare coverage and housing they need to stay out of the system. 

It’s a forward-thinking initiative, and it’s just one of many highlighted in a new project launched by the Vera Institute and the MacArthur Foundation. The Human Toll of Jail include a series of essays, videos, comics and other multimedia journalism to shine a light on unique and unexpected voices in the criminal justice system.

Another voice that the project highlights is that of Patrick Burke, a man who spent two years behind bars after killing a man in a drug-related dispute. Burke was released in 2013 and, after 20 years of incarceration, he returned to Rikers Island in 2015 to visit his son. In Return to Rikers, Josh Kramer offers an illustrated comic rendition of Burke’s journey.

In another of the projects, photographer Lili Holzer-Glier takes a look inside the Cook County Jail—the county jail that covers Chicago. Over a three-year period, the state budget suffered more than $110 million in cuts to mental health funding. As a result, mental health clinics are shutting down and psychiatric ER visits are on the rise. Another result, one that unequivocally works to negate any savings, is a rise in the number of mentally ill spending time in the county jail.

Cook County Jail houses around 9,000 inmates—about 35% of whom are deemed mentally ill. The project offers detailed interviews with four men in that 35%: Tommy, serving time for driving without a license; Daniel, serving time for heroin charges; Andrew, serving time for drug charges; and Milton, serving time for theft of lost property. All four of the men are housed in a special mental health unit, and they spoke about how much better it was than general population housing.

Even so, it’s still jail, and the mentally ill still suffer, even if it’s an improvement over GP. “This is a dead house,” said Milton. “It’s like a death trap for me. I got to get out of here.”

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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