A series illuminating the deaths of mentally ill people in jails throughout the country—often under horrific and preventable circumstances—is the winner of the 2019 Al Nakkula Award for police reporting, co-sponsored by the Denver Press Club and the University of Colorado Boulder's College of Media, Communication and Information.
Gary Harki, a staff writer for The Virginian-Pilot, will accept the award for his series, “Jailed in Crisis,” at the Denver Press Club's 25th Annual Damon Runyon Award Banquet. The banquet will be held Friday, March 1, at the Denver Athletic Club.
The winning series—published in August 2018—stems from reporting Harki began in 2015, when he investigated the death-by-starvation of Jamycheal Mitchell, a 24-year-old man who was held in a Virginia jail while suffering from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Harki’s reporting led to a U.S. Justice Department investigation into how the Virginia jail was treating inmates, especially those with mental illness.
After reporting on Mitchell’s death, Harki was surprised to find dozens of other cases that were just as troubling throughout the country. He wanted to look deeper into the trend, but realized no one was collecting the information necessary to document the extent of the problem.
Steve Gunn, then The Virginian Pilot’s top editor, urged Harki to apply for the Public Service Journalism O’Brien Fellowship at Marquette University to further his research. Harki was awarded the fellowship and spent the 2017-2018 school year working with Marquette students to further his study. The team built a database that tracked 404 deaths of people with mental illness in jails since 2010. According to their reporting, at least 11 percent of people with mental illnesses who died in jails had family or friends who warned the jails about their condition.
As word of Harki’s investigation has spread, he and the database have become a resource for those interested in issues surrounding jails and mental illness. Advocates are using his research to push for new data collection laws, jail officials have asked Harki to meet with them about possible improvements they can make, and The American Jail Association has reprinted his reporting for its members.
“Harki's reporting discovered highly disturbing trends,” said CU News Corps Director Chuck Plunkett, who oversaw the selection process. “Too often, those being held against their will for lack of appropriate beds in clinical settings are subjected to inhuman treatment.”
In addition to Plunkett, this year’s judges include Ashley Dean, an assistant editor and cultural reporter for Denverite; Elizabeth Hernandez, a reporter for The Denver Post; and Dan Petty, the digital director of audience development for MediaNews Group. While assessing nearly three-dozen entries from a range of outlets around the country, the judges focused on stories with a strong narrative, and on work that changed or is changing public policy in significant ways. Based on this criteria, they selected a winner, as well as two finalists.
The first finalist is a team from The Advocate of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Their year-long series, "Tilting the Scales," highlights racial disparities and injustices throughout the Louisiana judicial system that exist due to a Jim Crow law that allowed a jury of less than a full dozen to reach a guilty verdict. The series sparked impressive reform: the amendment of the state's constitution.
The second finalist is a team from The Oregonian and Oregonian Live. In “Ghosts of Highway 20,” the team tell the haunting story of Oregon serial killer John Arthur Ackroyd, who is linked to crimes against five women that took place over two decades.
“So many of these entries deserve the highest praise,” Plunkett said. “Their breadth, depth and execution speak well of the health of serious journalism being practiced in our time, despite enormous challenges and constraints.”
The "Nak" is named after the late Al Nakkula, a legendary police reporter who worked for 46 years at the Rocky Mountain News in Denver.