For many with mental illness, it’s arrest, incarcerate, release, repeat

Editor and Publisher Susan Smith Richardson

Editor and Publisher Susan Smith Richardson

In March, Anthony Hill, an Air Force veteran who served in Afghanistan, was shot and killed by a police officer in suburban Atlanta. Neighbors called police when an unarmed Hill was seen wandering around his apartment complex naked. He had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Hill’s death is one example of a recent deadly encounter between police and people living with mental illness. Shootings in Dallas and Milwaukee also have made national news and sparked calls for better police training.

Police officers often determine whether people living with mental illness receive treatment or punishment. As Hill’s story demonstrates, police also have the power to determine life or death. That’s a problem.

In Chicago and other cities, police departments are training officers to work with people with mental illness. Contact with a police officer is still too often an entry point to the criminal justice system rather than a treatment facility.

The root problem is a patchwork mental health safety net that long ago came apart at the seams, resulting in the criminalization of people living with mental illness. Advocates take the issue back to the 1960s, when the doors of state psychiatric facilities were flung open and people who couldn’t afford mental health care were dumped on the streets.

This lack of services largely explains why on average 2,000 of the 9,000 detainees in Cook County Jail are living with at least one diagnosed mental illness. It’s already been reported that the jail is among the largest psychiatric facilities in the nation.

That’s a disgrace.

In 2012, the City of Chicago shuttered half a dozen mental health clinics, leaving communities without these critical services. And cuts proposed by Gov. Bruce Rauner could worsen the situation. Black and brown neighborhoods are most affected. Large swaths of the South and West sides are in so-called “mental health deserts.” The pipeline to Cook County Jail runs straight through these communities, adding to the disproportionate number of African-Americans and Latinos behind bars. About 70 percent of the jail population is African-American.

Alex Bailey, who has cycled in and out of Cook County Jail, is in that pipeline, Managing Editor Deborah L. Shelton reports in this issue. The 32-year-old Bailey has been arrested 34 times as an adult, mostly for minor crimes like retail theft. He was diagnosed with a range of mental illnesses as a foster child, and even the love and devotion of his adopted mother, Annie Parker, hasn’t spared him from the cycle of arrest-incarcerate-release- repeat. Bailey has tried to kill himself twice while in jail.

As Deborah writes, people with mental illness live with waking nightmares. During one morning visit to Cook County Jail, she observed a homeless man with schizophrenia who hears voices. He had been arrested for theft “of a retail item worth less than $100.”

Another man had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and HIV. He has been shooting up heroin so long that his veins have collapsed.

They deserve treatment, not jail.

That’s the solution.

This issue of the Reporter is in collaboration with the Social Justice News Nexus, an initiative at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

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The Reporter is a finalist in five categories for the Peter Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, an annual contest hosted by The Chicago Headline Club. Contributing writers Curtis Black and Chris Benson were nominated for their compelling commentary about local politics and race, and criminal justice, respectively. Photo fellows William Camargo and Grace Donnelly were recognized for their powerful photos of Chicago protests in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

And the Reporter staff got nods for “Reclaiming the Avenue,” a look at the impact of the foreclosure crisis on the Chicago Lawn neighborhood. The staff also was nominated in the category of general excellence in print journalism, nondaily, for “The House at Ground Zero,” “Pay to Play” and “The Race for City Hall.” The latter was a joint publication with Catalyst Chicago and the team of Lorraine Forte, Sarah Karp and Melissa Sanchez.

Lisagor winners will be announced May 8.

  • This is a subject dear to my heart. Rather than treat (or even recognize) mental illness, we often criminalize its effects, trapping people in a cycle that doesn’t help anyone and incarcerating as criminals those most vulnerable among us. I have a family member who is stuck in the system because the police made the decision to treat her like a criminal rather than look deeper and see the illness beneath.