The Houston Landing’s first major story by investigative reporter Alex Stuckey revealed that inmates with mental illnesses are dying from suicide, violence and other unnatural causes in Houston-area jails — despite exhibiting previous mental health concerns that could have kept them out of jail in the first place.
Alex’s powerful reporting, coupled with stunning images by photo editor Marie D. De Jesús, made an immediate impact. And we’re just getting started.
By the end of the year, the Houston Landing plans to grow into one of the largest nonprofit newsrooms in the U.S. that provides essential local journalism. Investigative reporting is vital to our mission. That’s why one of our first hires was Alex, an award-winning journalist who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017.
“It’s really an opportunity to take the time to dive deep into a topic that seems insurmountable,” Alex said of her job.
“Jail deaths for example — that’s a lot of information,” she said. “Just trying to figure out how to approach a story like that takes a lot of time. These are stories you can’t really tell well unless you do spend that time to dig deep and fall into rabbit holes and go to extreme lengths to figure out.”
A demand for investigative journalism
When the American Journalism Project surveyed residents in our eight-county region to study the community’s needs for a nonprofit newsroom, the results were clear: People resoundingly want more watchdog reporting that makes sense of a complicated world and holds officials accountable.
It’s easy for news organizations to claim they provide investigative reporting. It’s quite another thing to spend the time, money and resources to do it right. Alex’s story is a prime example of the difficulties investigative reporters face — and why their work is so important.
Like so many news stories, Alex’s investigation of Texas jails started with a tip from a source: Many inmates dying in the overcrowded Harris County Jail had previously been documented with mental illnesses, the source said, making many of them eligible for programs that should keep them out of a jail cell and provide help.
In other words, many of these deaths could have been prevented.
We all agreed it was a strong news tip. But unlike your crazy Uncle Billy on Facebook, we can’t publish unvetted claims without checking them out. We had to learn how many inmates with mental illnesses died; whether authorities knew about their mental-health history; and how the death rate in the Houston region compared to other Texas jails.
Good journalism is all about digging up pertinent facts to test a hypothesis — to find out whether a juicy tip is true. Uncovering those facts sometimes takes months of work. To our knowledge, no one had ever tried to find out how many inmates with mental illnesses had died in Texas jails and whether authorities had missed warning signs.
Alex had to figure it out herself.
Creating our own data
To find the answers, Alex used the Texas Public Information Act to request a database of thousands of custodial death reports kept by the Texas attorney general’s office that document fatalities reported by law enforcement agencies. She obtained the data, analyzed it and compiled her own subset of the data, cataloging cases of jail detainees with mental illnesses who died from unnatural causes.
Then came the hard part. Alex had to look up each of the relevant criminal cases she found — more than 3,000 — to see what authorities knew about each inmate and their health history. This tedious task often involved calling court clerks in far-flung Texas counties that don’t publish case information online. At times, Alex had to instruct them how to use email instead of a fax machine.
Obtaining all those court documents wasn’t cheap — It cost more than $1,500 in copying fees, paid for by the Houston Landing.
After months of work, Alex finished creating her own database of jail deaths. Her investigation found that 46 percent of the 114 individuals who died of unnatural causes in the custody of Houston-area jails had been flagged as potentially mentally ill at least once since the 1980s. At least 52 people with mental illnesses died instead of being diverted to programs that can offer them assistance but are starved for public funding.
Behind those stark numbers are real people, and Alex set out to find family members who lost loved ones in the jail system. Alex and Marie spent much of their time with the mother of Rory Ward, an inmate with a long history of mental illness who was assaulted by another inmate in the Harris County Jail and later died.
“There’s this idea that people who have been through trauma don’t want to talk about it and the media is taking advantage of them,” Alex said. “That, in my experience, has not been the case.
“When you really take the time to explain what you’re doing, how you want to help them, how you care about what they’ve been through, people want to tell you their stories.”
Transparency in journalism
It’s important to be transparent with readers to show our reporting process and own their trust. That’s why the Houston Landing published Alex’s data showing detailed information about every jail death in the Houston region, allowing anyone to download it and analyze it for themselves. This is the first time, to our knowledge, that such a database has ever been available to the public.
And like many nonprofit newsrooms, we offer our content to other web publishers who can republish it for free. The Texas Tribune, a trailblazer in nonprofit news that set the standard for allowing others to use its news articles, was the first to republish Alex’s story. Shortly after that, Reform Austin — another nonprofit news site — republished the story and featured it prominently on its home page.
Alex’s story made an immediate difference. The same day it was published, one expert read directly from the article, sharing Alex’s findings at a Texas Commission on Jail Standards meeting in Austin. The next day, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo cited the story as she announced funding for a jail program that will help mentally ill defendants regain competency to stand trial instead of waiting months for a bed in a state-funded psychiatric hospital.
Alex is hard at work on her next big story, and we hope you join us on our journey as we continue to provide groundbreaking investigative journalism at the Houston Landing.
It’s difficult and time-consuming work. It’s also worth every penny.