If even half of the mental illness victims currently being treated at Oklahoma’s jails were able to get treatment at a community treatment center, there would be no need for expanding our current jails.
Several of us with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) are very disappointed that the jails are severely misused as mental health treatment centers just because there are no available beds in real psychiatric hospitals in Oklahoma. Dumping these people into a jail population is a horrible and inhumane act. They are far more likely to be further victimized by the real “bad dudes” who do belong behind bars.
Vinita State Hospital was closed by the legislature more than 10 years ago; but the legislature never fulfilled its commitment to replace the beds with community treatment centers around the state. Now, a crisis psychotic break results in police arrests for “disorderly conduct” and a jail sentence. The sufferer becomes an inmate with a police record, lost employment, separated family, kids in foster care, and a bill to taxpayers which is THREE TIMES what a 10-day stay at a community treatment center would cost.
If the Oklahoma Legislature would complete their duties to the state, the tax burden would be lifted from county and municipal budgets. I talked with Tulsa’s District Attorney, Tim Harris, about the costs of mentally ill people being handled as criminals. He said “$64 per day, plus the court costs and the load added to the prosecutor’s staff, for what essentially is a health issue…that adds up to a lot of money!” He agreed that his staff and the jail staff are trained to deal with criminals. They are not experts at caring for people with mental illnesses. They want to protect the public, but they know that the problem is medical in nature. Separating mental health crises from criminal justice is an essential reform which needs to happen in Oklahoma. A nervous breakdown is devastating enough to recover from; but adding the further stigma of
- a criminal record,
- DHS custody of children,
- lost employment from a 90-day jail sentence.
These are mountains too high for our loved ones to scale alone.
We who work together for mental health feel it is shameful that Oklahoma’s top 2 mental health providers are the county jails in Oklahoma City & Tulsa. The current Tulsa jail bond election signals a sad reality. The county wants us to fund a mental health wing at the jail. While it’s laudable that they are committing to better treatment of mental illness, we don’t think the jail is the appropriate setting for the treatment of these victims. No one asks to be stricken with the cruel scourge of mania, schizophrenia, suicidal depression, or delusional psychosis. It is an unreal “hell” to be a sufferer of these maladies. But there are some amazing treatments available which restore lives, families, and communities. Expanding our current jail is not the answer. This is a national trend, fueled by state legislatures who essentially “pass the buck” and leave local law enforcement with very few options when responding to a crisis call.
We urge our county commissioners to press the state legislature for the promised mental health infrastructure which would save the taxpayers very significant funds every year. The center is perpetually full and turning away scores of sick people every week who voluntarily seek recovery — before any police action is needed. Similar facilities at McAlester, Weatherford, Lawton, and Enid would save every county and municipality massive funds currently being spent on unnecessary incarcerations. Yes, it’s an added state investment (which was promised from the massive savings of closing Vinita), yet the overall tax burden would be less when we take into account the county and city law enforcement impact. For most sufferers of an acute psychotic break, their lives were very stable and bright prior to the unexpected event. They are terrified and confused. Most of these fellow citizens have a great opportunity for recovery and a renewed potential to contribute to their society. Mixing them with the general jail population where there is an increased likelihood of becoming a victim of violence and where they will not receive proper mental health care is not prudent. Rather than increasing the space at our county jail, we need to employ a more thoughtful and humane solution.