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Story Publication logo February 1, 2021

Criminalizing Mental Illness, Part 1

An armed guard surveys the grounds from the railing of a prison watchtower. Image by RealWindowCreative/shutterstock. Undated.

A five-article investigative series looks into the longstanding epidemic of preventable deaths in U...

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Jose Jaime & Gabriela Covarrubias, parents of Christian Madrigal, are standing together in front of a wooden fence.
Jose Jaime and Gabriela Covarrubias, parents of Christian Madrigal

In part one of a two-part investigation into how the country's jails have become our default mental health treatment centers, we go to Santa Rita jail in Alameda County, one of the largest — and deadliest — jails in California.

"Who do you call when someone's having a nervous breakdown? … There's nobody. And just by calling 9-1-1 there's going to be officers with guns, with handcuffs that only makes things worse."

At least a quarter, and possibly as many as half, of the people killed by law enforcement had an acute mental illness. And those that survive the encounter often end up arrested and locked up. This decades-long trend means that the three largest mental health treatment centers in the entire United States are now all inside jails. 

This series was co-reported by Sarah Shourd. It was supported by the National Geographic Society's Emergency Fund for Journalists and the Pulitzer Center. It was edited by Lisa Morehouse and mixed by Gabe Grabin.