You have permission to edit this article.
Edit
Overwhelmed

Jails, justice system unequipped for influx of mental illness

  • 11 min to read
tcr-030820-jailseries1

Wendy Blodgett’s Kingsley home displays dozens of mementos of her daughter Sarah Clark, who died by suicide in Grand Traverse County’s jail in February 2008. She holds them especially close this time of year.

TRAVERSE CITY — The door stays shut.

The bubblegum pink walls, sun-washed to a dull rose, remain untouched, still coated with a child’s messy graffiti — crude hearts, initials and stars.

Wendy Blodgett never liked the color. But 12 years after jail guards found her daughter hanging from a noose of tied-together socks, she can’t bring herself to paint over it.

Sarah Clark’s bedroom, like the rest of Blodgett’s Kingsley home, lingers in the past.

Aged school portraits and hammy candids alongside her older brother adorn walls. Blodgett’s favorite — Sarah’s thumbprint-sized driver’s license photo — perches on the counter in a heart-shaped silver frame.

tcr-030820-jailseries1

Wendy Blodgett’s favorite picture of Sarah remains on display at all times.

The mother holds close every memento, every Mother’s Day gift and school project, every medical record once so carefully kept.

She keeps milk crates and weathered paper boxes of doodled-on diaries, dog-eared yearbooks and jailhouse letters, held tight by rusted-through paper clips on the basement shelf.

They’re all Blodgett has left.

‘AT LEAST IN JAIL SHE’D BE SAFE’

Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s deputies found Sarah shooting up in her car on Feb. 24, 2008. The 21-year-old had parked just minutes down the road from her mother’s home.

The arrest offered Blodgett a much-needed break — her daughter, plagued by depression and multiple health conditions, would be safe in jail.

Safe.

So when Sarah’s father called Blodgett four days later, panicked about posting bail because Sarah was threatening to hurt herself, she reassured him.

The threats were nothing new.

But she was safe in a cell under constant supervision.

And Blodgett needed a weekend free of worrying.

She cracked open a beer and curled on the couch with the family dog to wind down from work when the knock came that night.

The deputy at the door didn’t faze her — Blodgett was used to cops asking after her daughter or the occasional neighbor.

“She’s not here — you’ve got her,” Blodgett told the deputy brusquely, a planted foot barring the door.

But the deputy told Blodgett to get in the car — the sheriff needed to talk to her.

Something was wrong.

“First time I ever got to ride in the front seat of a cop car,” Blodgett said wryly, recounting that night from her kitchen table, days before last month’s 12th anniversary.

The deputy wouldn’t respond to questions on the near 30-minute drive — the silence amplified what the mother already knew.

Sarah was dead.

The quiet left the mother of two with her thoughts. Memories of her lovely but rebellious child, whose life spiraled from 15 years old after a brutal car wreck. She remembers how pain clung to Sarah through repeated surgeries and regular trips to the emergency room. Pain drove trips to Saginaw to pick up Sarah’s painkillers, pain drove meet-ups with dealers for more when the scripts weren’t enough to stop Sarah’s pleading and tears.

Blodgett blames the pain for the day she found Sarah and a boyfriend in a hotel room, their wrists slashed and automotive antifreeze injected into their veins. She blames the pain for the dark cloud of depression ever-after hanging over Sarah’s head.

She blames the pain for Sarah’s arrest at 17 years old for driving high and a handful of other run-ins with the law. She blames the pain for Sarah’s traumatizing stays in jail, chronicled in frequent letters between mother and daughter on everything from cellmate spats to Blodgett’s Oreo obsession.

Pain led to the handcuffs on her daughter’s wrists that unseasonably warm February afternoon, less than a mile from Sarah’s bubblegum bedroom.

The loud click of a blinker jerked Blodgett back to the cruiser as it wheeled into the parking lot at Munson Medical Center.

A swarm of deputies met her as she reached Sarah’s room in the ICU.

“They hovered over me like I was going to fall down. I told them to get the f--- off me,” Blodgett said.

Beeping monitors and tubes surrounded her child, who at 21 seemed so small and pale in her hospital bed.

“I walked in, touched her cheek and kissed her on the forehead,” Blodgett said. “It was a corpse. There was no light in her eyes.”

tcr-030820-jailseries1

Wendy Blodgett walks her dog on a dirt road near her home in Kingsley on Wednesday.

There were no tears that night.

Those came later — Blodgett remembers the first of them. Her husband stopped her in the living room and asked if she was staying home from work. She isn’t sure how long she had been crying, but her blouse was soaked and her face streaked.

“It wasn’t because I was keeping it in,” Blodgett said. “It was because she was gone. And I was numb.”

NUMBERS NO ONE KNOWS

There’s no way Blodgett could have known in 2008 that she was joining a splintered family of parents, siblings and friends whose loved ones died in Michigan’s county jails.

At least 200 inmates died in Michigan’s local jails between 2009 and 2018. Over the course of months, the Record-Eagle has obtained information on 183 of them (so far).

Collected documents include a patchwork of local incident reports, outside investigative materials and voluntarily submitted federal forms. No Michigan department or agency is assigned to investigate deaths in local jails. Nor is there a requirement for local jail operators to report deaths to any state agency.

The only other comprehensive data is released by the U.S. Department of Justice, which has a years-long lag in disclosing its numbers. The federal agency restricts public access to broad statewide data.

Data obtained by the Record-Eagle shows suicide — more than medical problems, neglected illnesses, violence or overdoses — made up the majority of those deaths.

The suicide rate among inmates in Michigan’s less populous counties (less than 100,000 residents) was especially high — 48 deaths per 100,000 inmates per year. That rate is nearly 12 percent higher than the DOJ’s calculated nationwide rate of suicides in local jails.

It’s also about four times the nationwide rate for people not incarcerated.

Jail administrators, court overseers and researchers weren’t surprised by the statistics, although none had seen specific, up-to-date numbers from any other source.

Michigan Jail Deaths By Cause And Year

That lack of surprise was matched by uniform declarations that local jails both in Michigan and nationwide have become warehouses for Americans who struggle with mental illness and addiction.

Like Sarah Clark, as many as 80 percent of inmates in Michigan jails have some form of mental illness, according to a January report published by the governor’s Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration.

They estimate an even higher rate for rural county inmates.

The report also found that 1 in 4 jail inmates is severely mentally ill.

Many are incarcerated on low-level charges — driving without a valid license is the third most common reason people end up in Michigan jails, followed by theft, drug charges and probation violations. Between 2016 and 2018, jail stays averaged between 11 and 45 days, according to the task force report.

Inmates who die leave behind devastated family members and lovers, shocked friends and parent-less children.

tcr-030820-jailseries1

Wendy Blodgett flips through medical records of her daughter, Sarah Clark.

SHARED GRIEF

Blodgett, in what has become an annual wrestling match with grief, often stays home on the anniversary of Sarah’s death.

It was during one of those quiet nights — the 10th anniversary — surrounded by her family that Blodgett came to know Venus Telfor in a way no mother would wish upon another.

At about 8:30 p.m. on Feb. 28, 2018, screams from cellmates echoed inside the Grand Traverse County jail, sending corrections officers running to Marilyn Palmer’s aid.

She was already gone when they found her hanging in her cell’s shower, a Bible lying open by her side. Surveillance footage shows Marilyn hung lifeless for nearly an hour.

Her suicide came only a few hours after she sent the last of multiple medical requests pleading for prescribed anti-anxiety medication.

Cellmates would later tell Telfor her daughter was overwhelmed by anxiety — at one point climbing bunk beds to breathe through an air vent as she hyperventilated. Marilyn told her mother years earlier that she’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

The 36-year-old was three weeks into a 90-day stay on a felony identity theft conviction, and learned a short time earlier her work release request was denied.

Cellmates said she was devastated over missing Easter and her son’s 13th birthday.

The loneliness and anxiety Marilyn struggled against echoes in letters Sarah wrote to her mother during a jail stay 14 years earlier.

“I would do anything in the world to get a hug,” Sarah wrote to Blodgett from her cell bed in 2004.

“Every time the stabbing pains start I think of you. You were the one who was always there when I was in pain. Now, I am laughed at and told to suck it up and to stop faking.”

Marilyn’s family was left with less than the milk crates of journals and letters in Blodgett’s home.

Her three children, especially then-4-year-old Maddie, hold close a library of videotaped lullabies and storybooks their mother made in preparation for her jail stay.

Telfor sees much of Marilyn in her granddaughter — she’s smart, loving and sweet, just like her own little girl was.

“She was so smart,” Telfor said. “She had so many plans.”

Like Blodgett, Telfor isn’t sure when her daughter’s prescribed painkillers gave way to addiction. Marilyn was also a frequent patient — childhood scoliosis spurred four surgeries, two vertebral fusions and persistent pain.

She, like Sarah, found ways to get more painkillers. Marilyn’s first arrest was for stealing pills at her pharmacy job — a conviction that dissolved her plans of attending college and becoming a pharmacist.

She learned soon after she was pregnant.

Marilyn wavered. She tried to stay clean, be a good mother, stay out of jail. But she was never stable, Telfor said.

Like Sarah, she slipped up again.

Marilyn used a friend’s identity for a cable subscription, but didn’t pay, landing her back in Grand Traverse County’s jail.

Her mother was frustrated.

“She wasn’t a perfect girl, not at all. But did she deserve what she got in jail? I’m pretty sure not,” Telfor said. “I think that she was entitled to her medications. I think that she was entitled to not have people saying negative, nasty things to her.”

‘THEY GET SICKER’

Mothers like Blodgett and Telfor, although they’ve never met, share a gnawing trauma, exacerbated by the “what-ifs” and the “whys” that wash in with loss.

They know more now.

The system that failed their daughters fails hundreds of Michigan residents, whose untreated addiction and unaddressed mental health disorders send them toward altercations with law enforcement, petty crimes and the inside of jail cells.

A 2019 Michigan Health Endowment Fund Report shows more than one-third of Michigan’s 1.76 million mentally ill don’t receive treatment.

Nationally, many only get help after a run-in with the law, according to a 2019 Treatment Advocacy Center report. But even then, they languish in jail for months as they tick closer to the top of waitlists for mental health beds or competency exams.

“Sometimes, these families who have family members with mental illness don’t have the resources to get them help,” said Grand Traverse County Jail Administrator Chris Barsheff. “And because of that lack of resources or an avenue, these people are ending up breaking the law and ending up in jail.”

It means law enforcement officers too often find themselves on the front line.

The Advocacy Center report shows that, despite limited training and lacking expertise, officers are the ones responding to mental health crises and shuttling the mentally ill from one facility to another.

In 2017, more than 20 percent of law enforcement work hours, nationally, were spent responding to or transporting people with mental illness.

The reasons are mixed — lack of access to care proves rampant through Michigan, according to the Health Endowment Fund report, and is even worse in rural counties.

Both Sarah and Marilyn found themselves in that treatment gap jails often fall short of filling.

Through recent decades, Michigan’s local jail populations have nearly tripled, according to the governor’s jail task force findings.

Paired with scarce resources, crippling understaffing and limited training, jail administrators statewide say they’re tasked with housing offenders they’re woefully unequipped to handle.

It means the mentally ill remain in jail longer, return to jail more often and cost more to house, a study published by the Urban Institute shows.

And jail’s chaotic, stressful, noisy atmosphere only makes things worse, said University of Michigan Professor of Law Margo Schlanger, whose career focus has been civil rights issues related to incarceration.

“For some of them, they decompensate,” she said. “They get sicker.”

The “broken system” has become a public safety crisis, writes Michigan’s State Court Administrator Milton Mack.

“The criminal justice system is systematically being used to criminalize mental health and re-institutionalize persons with mental illnesses into jails and prisons,” he pens in a 2017 policy report.

Even short jail stays increase the likelihood of future criminal activity — meaning the mentally ill yo-yo back and forth between jails, care facilities and the streets without getting the help they need.

It’s a problem decades in the making.

Mental health treatment facilities and asylums closed in droves in the 1960s and ‘70s to put a stop to inhumane conditions, according to Mack. Community Mental Health organizations popped up to fill the gap — but those too have fallen short.

Often, action only comes spurred by litigation.

Blodgett sued Grand Traverse County after Sarah’s death. Telfor’s family, after a months-long tug-of-war, reached a $20,000 settlement with the county in her daughter’s death.

The family of Alan Bradley Halloway, who died by suicide in Grand Traverse County’s jail in July 2017, agreed to a $125,000 settlement. They’ve since set sights on Northern Lakes Community Mental Health for taking Halloway off suicide watch two days before he hanged himself with a pair of jail-issued socks.

The Record-Eagle’s data set is peppered with names that appear in federal and local lawsuits, litigation that costs local governments millions in judgments statewide.

Dozens of cases have been settled, judged or remain pending.

It frustrates Telfor.

“Making do” isn’t enough for her, and it wasn’t enough for her daughter.

“You don’t have that many suicide attempts if it’s nice, if it’s right,” Telfor said. “You don’t have people dying that close together and figuring out ways to do it unless something’s going on there.”

She’s tired of fighting, tired of reliving her daughter’s death and putting her family through that hell.

She doesn’t think anything has changed.

“There are going to be other families like me,” Telfor said. “And it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Records show she isn’t wrong, either. Several Michigan jails reported in-custody deaths by suicide since Palmer’s death in 2018, including a man who hanged himself in Benzie County’s jail in February.

Blodgett has grown weary, too. But she’ll tell Sarah’s story to anyone she thinks should hear it.

“She was in my belly. She breast-fed off me for almost 2 years. I potty-trained her, cloth diapers. I grew her food, I squished her food. I bathed her,” Blodgett said. “I had 21 years with her. Why would I want to forget that?”

Sometimes, she finds the strength to give away some of Sarah’s things. Blodgett will head out in the morning with a trunk packed with her daughter’s clothes.

She drives around until she spots a girl about Sarah’s size and in need of some kindness, and waves her down with an offer to raid the traveling “yard sale” free of charge.

She clings to the silver linings any mother would in her grief — mostly telling herself that Sarah isn’t in pain anymore.

She reassures herself that if not that night in jail, Sarah would’ve ended her own life some other day, some other place.

tcr-030820-jailseries1

Wendy keeps all of Sarah’s writings. They remain in pristine condition 12 years after her daughter’s death.

PAIN DOESN’T FADE

Blodgett spent the 12th anniversary of Sarah’s suicide at home with her husband and son. She played mad libs. They played pool, made dinner, watched a movie.

They don’t talk about Sarah.

But Sarah’s always there, frozen at 21 in the portraits on the walls.

Blodgett will never add pictures of her grinning daughter in a wedding gown, no shots of her throwing a graduation cap.

No portraits of would-be grandchildren.

She’ll never counsel Sarah through the throes of motherhood, offer advice on navigating the terrible-twos or soothing a teething infant.

“She would’ve been an awesome mother,” Blodgett said.

Instead, grief angels adorn her home and yard, and she makes plans for her daughter’s ashes. She wants to scatter them to the wind with her family at her side, and save a bit to turn into stained glass gifts for Sarah’s closest family members.

She wants to turn Sarah’s fuzzy pink “blankies,” now matted and dirty in the backseat of the family car, into teddy bears for the great-nieces and nephews Sarah won’t meet.

But the blankets are still in the minivan.

Sarah’s ashes still tucked away in her urn.

And the walls of her bedroom still a faded bubblegum pink.

It’s still too soon.

tcr-030820-jailseries1

Wendy Blodgett walks her dog on a dirt road near her home in Kingsley on Wednesday.

Patti Brandt Burgess and Mardi Link contributed this report

Recommended for you