Jail Abuse: Tulsa County Jail is Not a Proper Mental Health Treatment Center

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.

An acute mental health crisis can strike, unsuspectedly. This is not a crime worthy of punishment by jailing

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.

CLOSED: Eastern State Hospital, Vinita

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.

District Attorney, Tim Harris, sounds off. Housing the mentally ill in jail has overloaded the prosecutor’s resources

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.

A California prison, after the overloading effects of dumping the state’s mental hospital population into the jails and prisons.  It makes everyone less safe. It overloads the facilities and endangers the ill and the inmates.  It is a state-sanctioned abuse of the mentally ill.

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.

Oklahoma’s first (& only) added community mental health center to be funded, in the wake of Vinita’s closure, was TCBH. It was housed in an obsolete building of a former small hospital. TCBH was designated to handle JUST Tulsa county’s needs. But the state later broke this commitment to Tulsa and ordered the center to admit patients from all 77 counties of Oklahoma.

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.

4 thoughts on “Jail Abuse: Tulsa County Jail is Not a Proper Mental Health Treatment Center

  1. Stop building jails to nowhere, stop building bigger cages, our people need good jobs, good schools, and good wages. During times of fiscal austerity when everyone’s budgets are being cut, maybe it is time that the jail learn how to do more with less. Maybe our prosecutors and judges and jailers should consider alternatives like some of the state laws which says that people sentenced to jail should be allowed to serve their time on nights and weekends so they can keep a job and help pay for their incarceration. Why is it that only private jails allow people to work a job and check in at night? Our jail could create “jail supervision” where people pay the probation/jail supervision while going to work or going to treatment instead of paying private pay jails. We are now engaged in “criminalizing” mental illness and “re-institutionalizing” the mentally ill in jail and prison facilities instead of treatment facilities. Jails are revolving doors to nowhere and have been unsuccessful in reducing crime. Tulsa’s crime rate has not declined despite building a 72 million dollar jail only 15 years ago in 1999, and now they demand a bigger jail, while laying off police officers, fire fighters, city workers, and other loyal hard working people. During a period of economic austerity, when everyone else’s budgets are being cut, they demand a pay raise for Tulsa County jailers and a multi-million dollar jail expansion to house mentally ill people and people too poor to afford to post a bond, and drug addicts and alcoholics instead of treatment centers. They say the public will not support treatment and only supports jails. That is what they believe.

    Jail is no place for proper mental health treatment. If any other institutions in America were as unsuccessful as our jails and prisons are, we would shut them down tomorrow. Two-thirds of people released from jail re-offend within three years of leaving jail, often with a more serious offense. Jails are revolving doors to nowhere. Jails do not reduce crime.

    Building bigger jails has not been a successful approach to reducing crime. In 1999, Tulsa built a 72 million dollar jail, and our crime rate has not declined. There are more cost effective ways to combat crime than building multi-million dollar jails. If they cannot even make effective use of a 72 million dollar jail that is only 15 years old, then why should trust them. Wouldn’t we all like to build another home every 15 years at taxpayer expense?

    Last week our mayor announced that the city of Tulsa would be laying off or furloughing city workers. Last week the city of Tulsa laid off or terminated about ten new police recruits at the Tulsa Police Academy. Our government suffers serious economic limitations.

    Criminalizing mental illness is not a cost effective solution to the problem. There are many alternatives. Midwest City Oklahoma has started a pilot program to transfer mentally ill and substance abusers to treatment centers or programs. Effective real crime prevention may require all of us to become more creative and to seek real solutions that address “core” problems. Mass incarceration of ordinary non-violent offenders has been unsuccessful in reducing crime and places them in jeopardy by putting ordinary people in jail with hardened criminals. Excessive use of incarceration instead of treatment creates numerous problems. There are many solutions to over-crowding which do not involve building multi-million dollar jails.

    Mass incarceration at record breaking levels has failed to reduce crime. Jailing mentally ill people and drug offenders without treatment is creating a “revolving” door. Tulsa County has the highest tax rates in Oklahoma and bigger jails are not going to solve our crime problem. Successful crime prevention may require that we spend less money on jail warehouses and re-direct mentally ill, alcoholics, and drug addicts to treatment instead of expensive multi-million dollar jails.

    While the City of Tulsa announces future lay-offs of city workers, our Tulsa County government continues to push for a bigger multi-million dollar jail as the ONLY SOLUTION to jail over-crowding.

    Most people already know that the Tulsa County jail is a revolving door and very unsuccessful. Yet, our government officials believe that only a bigger jail will reduce crime. Reducing crime requires more than warehousing people in jails to nowhere.


  2. Pingback: Fooled Ya! April 1st Proposed Tax Increase for Tulsa County | Liberty on Tap

  3. Pingback: Fooled Ya! April 1st Proposed Tax Increase for Tulsa County

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