Mental Health and Criminal Justice in Oklahoma

With the high-profile stabbing death of Oklahoma Labor Commissioner Mark Costello by his mentally ill son Christian Costello, the issue of mental health and criminal justice is once again in the spotlight in Oklahoma.

On August 23, Christian Costello arranged to meet his parents at a Braum's by his apartment near 122nd and May. When his parents arrived, Christian asked to speak with his father alone. He then allegedly pulled a steak knife, stabbing his father multiple times both inside and outside the restaurant as Mark Costello tried to flee. Christian was finally subdued by bystanders, but not before he killed his own father.

In the aftermath of the killing, the Costello family indicated that Christian has been plagued with mental health issues, being diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. He had been medicated to treat mental illness, and was involuntarily committed to a mental health treatment center as recently as November.  

But as Oklahoma interest turns again toward a mental health crisis, Oklahoma County Jail officials admit that their facility is not equipped to adequately handle or treat inmates with serious mental health issues. In fact, the jail, which opened in 1991,  was built without a mental health unit, medical ward, or physician's offices. Some cells have been retrofitted for mentally ill inmates, and the office for the jail's only psychiatrist is a converted corner cell.

In Oklahoma, there are roughly 5,800 inmates with mental illness or mental health disorders, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Nearly a third of female inmates nationwide are mentally ill, and almost 15 percent of male inmates have mental health disorders. Given Oklahoma's notorious distinction of having one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation (and the highest female incarceration rate), this means that a great number of mentally ill Oklahomans are simply warehoused in county jails.

Complicating the issue is the fact that up to 75 percent of inmates with mental illness also have a substance abuse problem. Substance abuse is often a way of "self-medicating" for people who struggle with mental health issues.  Christian Costello, for example, has admitted to using methamphetimine and said he has used synthetic marijuana (K2) daily for three years. 

There is no question that mental health has become a crisis issue for Oklahoma corrections and for jails and prisons across the nation. Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel believes a federal lawsuit by the Justice Department will likely be the next step in getting the jail fixed to accomodate mentally ill inmates if the county doesn't take the initiative to make needed repairs or to build a new facility.

Councilman Ed Shadid agrees, calling the county jail a "symptom" of Oklahoma's failings when it comes to treating those with mental health issues and substance abuse issues. He says that delaying treatment and making the jails de facto mental health facilities only exacerbates the problem: "It's not the solution. You can debate, ‘Where do you want people to go when their addiction gets them in trouble, when their mental health gets them in trouble?' But the focus should be — how are you going to treat people's mental illnesses and addictions? And if you're not willing to make those investments, you can be sure your criminal justice system is going to be flooded, and you spend money on the back end.”

You may remember we looked at how mental health issues play out in the criminal justice system, and how the local jails and state prison systems are often ill-equipped to meet the needs of mentally ill inmates. Find the series beginning here. We have also compiled our findings into this infographic.

Image Credit: ruffrootcreative.com
 

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