Katy Burnell Evans is a Metro Enterprise reporter at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Over the last year, she and reporter Sarah Kleiner have investigated the deaths of Jamycheal Mitchell and Henry Clay Stewart, both of whom died while incarcerated at Hampton Roads Regional Jail. Katy and Sarah discovered that the jail has the highest death rate among all jails in the state. Katy won the Virginia Press Association's Outstanding Young Journalist of the Year Award in 2015. She has a track record of investigating and writing on issues of mental health, incarceration, and justice.
Jails are hard to see. People tend to look at jails and those who go to them and think: “That’s not my problem. They made choices that put them there.” From this disregard follows a lack of scrutiny, a lack of oversight—and that breeds a culture of secrecy in a lot of jails. That’s problematic for many reasons, but especially when you consider that jails house society’s most vulnerable people.
Everyone had assumed that there was a mechanism in place to investigate cases like Jamycheal Mitchell’s. Jamycheal was an otherwise healthy 24 year-old man with mental health issues who lost more than 40 pounds and died during a 101-day stay in Hampton Roads Regional Jail. As it turns out, there isn’t any one person who’s specifically tasked with investigating jail deaths.
It’s a big, messy ball of issues, so you try to pull a thread and unravel the ball just a bit and use that as a jumping-off point for a broader conversation. For example, I spent a lot of time yesterday sending emails to Public Information Officers at various jails and asking them, “Do you issue press releases when someone dies? If so, why? If not, why not?” Most jails send press releases about feel-good stories, but they don’t communicate when someone dies. I argue that a facility should be upfront and transparent, instead of having people like me gnawing at their heels whenever we get wind of something.
Right now, a lot of my best sources of information come from anonymous tips and letters from inmates—in other words, from the bottom up. If we hadn’t gotten a tip that someone died at Central State Hospital after being transferred from Hampton Roads Regional Jail, we wouldn’t have known to start asking questions. We never would have learned of Valerie Anderson. Weeks or months could have passed before her family learned of her death.
For me, these issues are personal. My grandmother had a lot of undiagnosed mental health problems, and she ran off when my mom was tiny. I think she reached out once after disappearing, but otherwise we never heard from her. In my work, part of me is always wondering, “Am I going to recognize her in a story?” She’s the kind of person I would end up writing about. When I run across a case like Valerie Anderson's, I can’t help but be emotionally invested. I think about my grandmother and wonder, “Who’s fighting for these people?” We’re talking about people who have committed low-level offenses, misdemeanor offenses—repeat trespassing, petty larceny—and then, end up in jail because society has no other place for them.
I’m also motivated by the families whose loved ones are affected by policy decisions on mental health and criminal justice. When family members feel like those policies are neglecting or punishing them, they reach out to me because they don’t know where else to go. I can't lose my sense of urgency, because the stress and worry faced by these individuals are not feelings that they can push off until tomorrow, until next week. They need answers now. Family members of those struggling with mental illness inside jails often can't get answers. But sometimes, I can. So I’m sure as hell going to pick up the phone and make that call.
But maybe most of all, I'm motivated by anger—and nothing made me angrier than a voicemail I received in reaction to a story about someone who had died from a heroin overdose. The caller said, “Well, the problem took care of itself. Good thing public dollars aren’t going toward dealing with that person.” Calls like that make me work harder—so please, keep them coming! I can’t change everyone’s mind, and that's not my job. But if I can advance a conversation that needs to be heard, I’m willing to do that.
And I do feel that a productive conversation is happening—finally. Until recently, decades went by without public conversation about mental illness and incarceration. But today, more people are talking about this stuff. There’s a critical mass of people who recognize that what we’re doing isn’t working. Reporters are writing about issues of mental health and incarceration all across the country—and I’m struck by how similar these problems are from state to state. Virginia is not the worst at dealing with them, nor are we are the best. No one is doing this right.
Our towns and cities tend to lack either the political will or the resources necessary to treat people with mental illness. So they end up in jail, the only place that will take them. Should we equip every jail to handle people with mental illness effectively, or should we create another place for them to go? Smart people who work in the criminal justice and mental health fields have asked these questions for a long time. Now, will voters and legislators ask these questions? Will Virginia be a model for other states?
When I became a parent, I asked one of my family members for advice. She said, “There are no shortcuts. It’s a slog. And what it comes down to is, every time you have a decision to make, you need to make the right one. And then you need to make the next right one. And then the next right one. It’s exhausting, but that’s how you do it.” There are so many different agencies doing work that intersects with mental illness and incarceration, and each one of them needs to make the right decisions. They need to stand up and say, “This is the choice we made, and here's why.” Until we get to that point, I’m going to keep asking questions.
— interviewed November 30, 2016