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Traverse City newspaper launches statewide in-custody deaths data project

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Experts say local communities have been substituting mental health treatment for jail time in the United States for decades now. Tess DeGayner spoke with Nathan Payne, editor of the Traverse City Record Eagle Newspaper to discuss the Death Sentence data project. The project started over a year ago...

 

 

 

Nathan: It really began in July of 2017 when we started reporting on a local jail suicide when Alan Bradley Halloway died in Grand Traverse County’s jail. We started then realizing that there’s very little oversight and there was basically no way to know whether his death was an anomaly in one county or whether it was a statewide issue.

 

Tess: Why is this project important and what does this information tell us?

 

Nathan: We really set out to collect information and make public information that nobody else is pulling together. The department of justice’s statistics does some data collection on a voluntary basis and they compilenumbers from in-custody deaths in local jails, but they don’t release any of their reports that local jails submit to them so you don't know who’s reporting what and they only infrequently release data on a statewide and national basis. So we wanted to look deeper and collect more specific information.

 

Tess: What can people look forward to from this project?

 

Nathan: We’re going to continue reporting on it every month throughout 2020, but the original release was of all of our records collected so far, county by county. This coming weekend, we hope to have our data set completed and be able to report on our specific data findings and then we will release our data set publically as well. 

 

The Death Sentence Data project examines in-custody deaths in Michigan’s local jails from 10 years of reports.

Tess DeGayner continues her conversation with Record Eagle Editor, Nathan Payne about the project.

 

Nathan: It told us some things that people in the system sort of already knew, basically the local jails have taken on really significant weight in handling people struggling with mental illness. We have several sources telling us that up to 25 percent of local jail inmates have a severe mental illness and as many of 80 percent of local jail inmates have some history of mental illness. 

 

Tess: I know this is about numbers, but can you tell me a little bit about the people behind this project?

 

A lot of people just-- on all sides of the issue-- ending up in almost an impossible situation. You have corrections officers, jail administrators sort of step in the place of mental health care practitioners, they’re put in a very difficult situation in a system that’s not built to handle the things that they're handling today. We also found a number of people who are dealing with the aftermath of a system that really is not prepared to treat mental illness. We spent the past month talking with two mothers who both lost daughters ten years to the day apart in the same jail. They're still dealing with that loss, both of them recognize that their daughters went to jail for a reason, that their daughters had committed crimes and were going to be serving some time - even short stays because of those crimes but both maintain that neither of their daughters went to jail to die. 

 

 

Tess DeGayner is a student reporter for WCMU News. She is a senior at Central Michigan University studying Journalism and Broadcasting. Her hometown is Fenton, Michigan.