For Markus Johnson, Prison and Mental Illness Equaled a Death Sentence

Markus Johnson slumped naked against the wall of his cell, skin flecked with pepper spray, his face a mask of puzzlement, exhaustion and resignation. Four men in black tactical gear pinned him, his face to the concrete, to cuff his hands behind his back.

He did not resist. He couldn’t. He was so gravely dehydrated he would be dead by their next shift change.

“I didn’t do anything,” Mr. Johnson moaned as they pressed a shield between his shoulders.

It was 1:19 p.m. on Sept. 6, 2019, in the Danville Correctional Center, a medium-security prison a few hours south of Chicago. Mr. Johnson, 21 and serving a short sentence for gun possession, was in the throes of a mental collapse that had gone largely untreated, but hardly unwatched.

He had entered in good health, with hopes of using the time to gain work skills. But for the previous three weeks, Mr. Johnson, who suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, had refused to eat or take his medication. Most dangerous of all, he had stealthily stopped drinking water, hastening the physical collapse that often accompanies full-scale mental crises.

Mr. Johnson’s horrific downward spiral, which has not been previously reported, represents the larger failures of the nation’s prisons to care for the mentally ill. Many seriously ill people receive no treatment. For those who do, the outcome is often determined by the vigilance and commitment of individual supervisors and frontline staff, which vary greatly from system to system, prison to prison, and even shift to shift.

The country’s jails and prisons have become its largest provider of inpatient mental health treatment, with 10 times as many seriously mentally ill people now held behind bars as in hospitals. Estimating the population of incarcerated people with major psychological problems is difficult, but the number is likely 200,000 to 300,000, experts say.

Many of these institutions remain ill-equipped to handle such a task, and the burden often falls on prison staff and health care personnel who struggle with the dual roles of jailer and caregiver in a high-stress, dangerous, often dehumanizing environment.

In 2021, Joshua McLemore, a 29-year-old with schizophrenia held for weeks in an isolation cell in Jackson County, Ind., died of organ failure resulting from a “refusal to eat or drink,” according to an autopsy. In April, New York City agreed to pay $28 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the family of Nicholas Feliciano, a young man with a history of mental illness who suffered severe brain damage after attempting to hang himself on Rikers Island — as correctional officers stood by.

Mr. Johnson’s mother has filed a wrongful-death suit against the state and Wexford Health Sources, a for-profit health care contractor in Illinois prisons. The New York Times reviewed more than 1,500 pages of reports, along with depositions taken from those involved. Together, they reveal a cascade of missteps, missed opportunities, potential breaches of protocol and, at times, lapses in common sense.

Prison officials and Wexford staff took few steps to intervene even after it became clear that Mr. Johnson, who had been hospitalized repeatedly for similar episodes and recovered, had refused to take medication. Most notably, they did not transfer him to a state prison facility that provides more intensive mental health treatment than is available at regular prisons, records show.

The quality of medical care was also questionable, said Mr. Johnson’s lawyers, Sarah Grady and Howard Kaplan, a married legal team in Chicago. Mr. Johnson lost 50 to 60 pounds during three weeks in solitary confinement, but officials did not initiate interventions like intravenous feedings or transfer him to a non-prison hospital.

And they did not take the most basic step — dialing 911 — until it was too late.

There have been many attempts to improve the quality of mental health treatment in jails and prisons by putting care on par with punishment — including a major effort in Chicago. But improvements have proved difficult to enact and harder to sustain, hampered by funding and staffing shortages.

Lawyers representing the state corrections department, Wexford and staff members who worked at Danville declined to comment on Mr. Johnson’s death, citing the unresolved litigation. In their interviews with state police investigators, and in depositions, employees defended their professionalism and adherence to procedure, while citing problems with high staff turnover, difficult work conditions, limited resources and shortcomings of co-workers.

But some expressed a sense of resignation about the fate of Mr. Johnson and others like him.

Prisoners have “much better chances in a hospital, but that’s not their situation,” said a senior member of Wexford’s health care team in a deposition.

“I didn’t put them in prison,” he added. “They are in there for a reason.”

Markus Mison Johnson was born on March 1, 1998, to a mother who believed she was not capable of caring for him.

Days after his birth, he was taken in by Lisa Barker Johnson, a foster mother in her 30s who lived in Zion, Ill., a working-class city halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee. Markus eventually became one of four children she adopted from different families.

The Johnson house is a lively split level, with nieces, nephews, grandchildren and neighbors’ children, family keepsakes, video screens and juice boxes. Ms. Johnson sits at its center on a kitchen chair, chin resting on her hand as children wander over to share their thoughts, or to tug on her T-shirt to ask her to be their bathroom buddy.

From the start, her bond with Markus was particularly powerful, in part because the two looked so much alike, with distinctive dimpled smiles. Many neighbors assumed he was her biological son. The middle name she chose for him was intended to convey that message.

“Mison is short for ‘my son,’” she said standing over his modest footstone grave last summer.

He was happy at home. School was different. His grades were good, but he was intensely shy and was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in elementary school.

That was around the time the bullying began. His sisters were fierce defenders, but they could only do so much. He did the best he could, developing a quick, taunting tongue.

These experiences filled him with a powerful yearning to fit in.

It was not to be.

When he was around 15, he called 911 in a panic, telling the dispatcher he saw two men standing near the small park next to his house threatening to abduct children playing there. The officers who responded found nothing out of the ordinary, and rang the Johnsons’ doorbell.

He later told his mother he had heard a voice telling him to “protect the kids.”

He was hospitalized for the first time at 16, and given medications that stabilized him for stretches of time. But the crises would strike every six months or so, often triggered by his decision to stop taking his medication.

His family became adept at reading signs he was “getting sick.” He would put on his tan Timberlands and a heavy winter coat, no matter the season, and perch on the edge of his bed as if bracing for battle. Sometimes, he would cook his own food, paranoid that someone might poison him.

He graduated six months early, on the dean’s list, but was rudderless, and hanging out with younger boys, often paying their way.

His mother pointed out the perils of buying friendship.

“I don’t care,” he said. “At least I’ll be popular for a minute.”

Zion’s inviting green grid of Bible-named streets belies the reality that it is a rough, unforgiving place to grow up. Family members say Markus wanted desperately to prove he was tough, and emulated his younger, reckless group of friends.

Like many of them, he obtained a pistol. He used it to hold up a convenience store clerk for $425 in January 2017, according to police records. He cut a plea deal for two years of probation, and never explained to his family what had made him do it.

But he kept getting into violent confrontations. In late July 2018, he was arrested in a neighbor’s garage with a handgun he later admitted was his. He was still on probation for the robbery, and his public defender negotiated a plea deal that would send him to state prison until January 2020.

Around 40 percent of the about 1.8 million people in local, state and federal jails and prison suffer from at least one mental illness, and many of these people have concurrent issues with substance abuse, according to recent Justice Department estimates.

Psychological problems, often exacerbated by drug use, often lead to significant medical problems resulting from a lack of hygiene or access to good health care.

“When you suffer depression in the outside world, it’s hard to concentrate, you have reduced energy, your sleep is disrupted, you have a very gloomy outlook, so you stop taking care of yourself,” said Robert L. Trestman, a Virginia Tech medical school professor who has worked on state prison mental health reforms.

The paradox is that prison is often the only place where sick people have access to even minimal care.

But the harsh work environment, remote location of many prisons, and low pay have led to severe shortages of corrections staff and the unwillingness of doctors, nurses and counselors to work with the incarcerated mentally ill.

In the early 2000s, prisoners’ rights lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit against Illinois claiming “deliberate indifference” to the plight of about 5,000 mentally ill prisoners locked in segregated units and denied treatment and medication.

In 2014, the parties reached a settlement that included minimum staffing mandates, revamped screening protocols, restrictions on the use of solitary confinement and the allocation of about $100 million to double capacity in the system’s specialized mental health units.

Yet within six months of the deal, Pablo Stewart, an independent monitor chosen to oversee its enforcement, declared the system to be in a state of emergency.

Over the years, some significant improvements have been made. But Dr. Stewart’s final report, drafted in 2022, gave the system failing marks for its medication and staffing policies and reliance on solitary confinement “crisis watch” cells.

Ms. Grady, one of Mr. Johnson’s lawyers, cited an additional problem: a lack of coordination between corrections staff and Wexford’s professionals, beyond dutifully filling out dozens of mandated status reports.

“Markus Johnson was basically documented to death,” she said.

Mr. Johnson was not exactly looking forward to prison. But he saw it as an opportunity to learn a trade so he could start a family when he got out.

On Dec. 18, 2018, he arrived at a processing center in Joliet, where he sat for an intake interview. He was coherent and cooperative, well-groomed and maintained eye contact. He was taking his medication, not suicidal and had a hearty appetite. He was listed as 5 feet 6 inches tall and 256 pounds.

Mr. Johnson described his mood as “go with the flow.”

A few days later, after arriving in Danville, he offered a less settled assessment during a telehealth visit with a Wexford psychiatrist, Dr. Nitin Thapar. Mr. Johnson admitted to being plagued by feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and “constant uncontrollable worrying” that affected his sleep.

He told Dr. Thapar he had heard voices in the past — but not now — telling him he was a failure, and warning that people were out to get him.

At the time he was incarcerated, the basic options for mentally ill people in Illinois prisons included placement in the general population or transfer to a special residential treatment program at the Dixon Correctional Center, west of Chicago. Mr. Johnson seemed out of immediate danger, so he was assigned to a standard two-man cell in the prison’s general population, with regular mental health counseling and medication.

Things started off well enough. “I’m just trying to keep my head up,” he wrote to his mother. “Every day I learn to be stronger & stronger.”

But his daily phone calls back home hinted at friction with other inmates. And there was not much for him to do after being turned down for a janitorial training program.

Then, in the spring of 2019, his grandmother died, sending him into a deep hole.

Dr. Thapar prescribed a new drug used to treat major depressive disorders. Its most common side effect is weight gain. Mr. Johnson stopped taking it.

On July 4, he told Dr. Thapar matter-of-factly during a telehealth check-in that he was no longer taking any of his medications. “I’ve been feeling normal, I guess,” he said. “I feel like I don’t need the medication anymore.”

Dr. Thapar said he thought that was a mistake, but accepted the decision and removed Mr. Johnson from his regular mental health caseload — instructing him to “reach out” if he needed help, records show.

The pace of calls back home slackened. Mr. Johnson spent more time in bed, and became more surly. At a group-therapy session, he sat stone silent, after showing up late.

By early August, he was telling guards he had stopped eating.

At some point, no one knows when, he had intermittently stopped drinking fluids.

Then came the crash.

On Aug. 12, Mr. Johnson got into a fight with his older cellmate.

He was taken to a one-man disciplinary cell. A few hours later, Wexford’s on-site mental health counselor, Melanie Easton, was shocked by his disoriented condition. Mr. Johnson stared blankly, then burst into tears when asked if he had “suffered a loss in the previous six months.”

He was so unresponsive to her questions she could not finish the evaluation.

Ms. Easton ordered that he be moved to a 9-foot by 8-foot crisis cell — solitary confinement with enhanced monitoring. At this moment, a supervisor could have ticked the box for “residential treatment” on a form to transfer him to Dixon. That did not happen, according to records and depositions.

Around this time, he asked to be placed back on his medication but nothing seems to have come of it, records show.

By mid-August, he said he was visualizing “people that were not there,” according to case notes. At first, he was acting more aggressively, once flicking water at a guard through a hole in his cell door. But his energy ebbed, and he gradually migrated downward — from standing to bunk to floor.

“I’m having a breakdown,” he confided to a Wexford employee.

At the time, inmates in Illinois were required to declare an official hunger strike before prison officials would initiate protocols, including blood testing or forced feedings. But when a guard asked Mr. Johnson why he would not eat, he said he was “fasting,” as opposed to starving himself, and no action seems to have been taken.

Lt. Matthew Morrison, one of the few people at Danville to take a personal interest in Mr. Johnson, reported seeing a white rind around his mouth in early September. He told other staff members the cell gave off “a death smell,” according to a deposition.

On Sept. 5, they moved Mr. Johnson to one of six cells adjacent to the prison’s small, bare-bones infirmary. Prison officials finally placed him on the official hunger strike protocol without his consent.

Mr. Morrison, in his deposition, said he was troubled by the inaction of the Wexford staff, and the lack of urgency exhibited by the medical director, Dr. Justin Young.

On Sept. 5, Mr. Morrison approached Dr. Young to express his concerns, and the doctor agreed to order blood and urine tests. But Dr. Young lived in Chicago, and was on site at the prison about four times a week, according to Mr. Kaplan. Friday, Sept. 6, 2019, was not one of those days.

Mr. Morrison arrived at work that morning, expecting to find Mr. Johnson’s testing underway. A Wexford nurse told him Dr. Young believed the tests could wait.

Mr. Morrison, stunned, asked her to call Dr. Young.

“He’s good till Monday,” Dr. Young responded, according to Mr. Morrison.

“Come on, come on, look at this guy! You tell me this is OK!” the officer responded.

Eventually, Justin Duprey, a licensed nurse practitioner and the most senior Wexford employee on duty that day, authorized the test himself.

Mr. Morrison, thinking he had averted a disaster, entered the cell and implored Mr. Johnson into taking the tests. He refused.

So prison officials obtained approval to remove him forcibly from his cell.

What happened next is documented in video taken from cameras held by officers on the extraction team and obtained by The Times through a court order.

Mr. Johnson is scarcely recognizable as the neatly groomed 21-year-old captured in a cellphone picture a few months earlier. His skin is ashen, eyes fixed on the middle distance. He might be 40. Or 60.

At first, he places his hands forward through the hole in his cell door to be cuffed. This is against procedure, the officers shout. His hands must be in back.

He will not, or cannot, comply. He wanders to the rear of his cell and falls hard. Two blasts of pepper spray barely elicit a reaction. The leader of the tactical team later said he found it unusual and unnerving.

The next video is in the medical unit. A shield is pressed to his chest. He is in agony, begging for them to stop, as two nurses attempt to insert a catheter.

Then they move him, half-conscious and limp, onto a wheelchair for the blood draw.

For the next 20 minutes, the Wexford nurse performing the procedure, Angelica Wachtor, jabs hands and arms to find a vessel that will hold shape. She winces with each puncture, tries to comfort him, and grows increasingly rattled.

“Oh, my God,” she mutters, and asks why help is not on the way.

She did not request assistance or discuss calling 911, records indicate.

“Can you please stop — it’s burning real bad,” Mr. Johnson said.

Soon after, a member of the tactical team reminds Ms. Wachtor to take Mr. Johnson’s vitals before taking him back to his cell. She would later tell Dr. Young she had been unable to able to obtain his blood pressure.

“You good?” one of the team members asks as they are preparing to leave.

“Yeah, I’ll have to be,” she replies in the recording.

Officers lifted him back onto his bunk, leaving him unconscious and naked except for a covering draped over his groin. His expressionless face is visible through the window on the cell door as it closes.

Mr. Duprey, the nurse practitioner, had been sitting inside his office after corrections staff ordered him to shelter for his own protection, he said. When he emerged, he found Ms. Wachtor sobbing, and after a delay, he was let into the cell. Finding no pulse, Mr. Duprey asked a prison employee to call 911 so Mr. Johnson could be taken to a local emergency room.

The Wexford staff initiated CPR. It did not work.

At 3:38 p.m., the paramedics declared Markus Mison Johnson dead.

Afterward, a senior official at Danville called the Johnson family to say he had died of “cardiac arrest.”

Lisa Johnson pressed for more information, but none was initially forthcoming. She would soon receive a box hastily crammed with his possessions: uneaten snacks, notebooks, an inspirational memoir by a man who had served 20 years at Leavenworth.

Later, Shiping Bao, the coroner who examined his body, determined Mr. Johnson had died of severe dehydration. He told the state police it “was one of the driest bodies he had ever seen.”

For a long time, Ms. Johnson blamed herself. She says that her biggest mistake was assuming that the state, with all its resources, would provide a level of care comparable to what she had been able to provide her son.

She had stopped accepting foster care children while she was raising Markus and his siblings. But as the months dragged on, she decided her once-boisterous house had become oppressively still, and let local agencies know she was available again.

“It is good to have children around,” she said. “It was too quiet around here.”

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