Oklahoma Jails Increasingly Used as Mental Health Facilities

This blog published a series of articles called "Where Mental Health and Criminal Justice Collide," which explored the costs--both human and economic costs--associated with allowing our jails to become de facto mental health hospitals. We've frequently discussed the problems faced by continually cutting mental health and substance abuse funding, and instead relying on the police to be first responders in dealing with mental health crises. Yet since we first began discussing this issue on our blog, little has changed. In fact, a new law intended to reduce the prison population by making certain drug possession and property crimes misdemeanors could actually exacerbate the problems found at county jails.

Currently, local newspaper The Oklahoman is engaging in a similar series, entitled "Epidemic Ignored." This series begins with a discussion of "a broken system," one that is not unique to Oklahoma, but given the state's recent budget failure and massive funding cuts, could be much worse in this state than in others.

The writer of the series, Jaclyn Cosgrove, gives some startling statistics about the use of jails as a subpar replacement for mental health facilities in Oklahoma:

  • Despite having one of the highest rates of mental illness in the nation, Oklahoma spends the least on mental health care and resources, meaning that only one in three adults with mental illness receives treatment.
  • The cost of one year of state-funded mental health treatment is $2,000, compared with $23,000 for a year of incarceration, yet the state continues to underfund mental health services, creating a burden for taxpayers as well as for those who are unable to get appropriate mental health care.
  • In Oklahoma, there are roughly 820 state-funded beds to care for those requiring inpatient mental health or substance abuse treatment. This compares with 15,000 beds in jails and temporary holding facilities across the state.
  • The Oklahoma Department of Corrections reports that approximately 60 percent of its inmate population--some 17,000 people--have either symptoms of mental illness or a history of mental illness.

So how do the mentally ill end up in jail? Sometimes, bizarre or irrational behavior will lead to an arrest after a public disturbance, but often the arrests come in different ways.

For example, many family members believe their loved ones will be safe and receive treatment in jail. When the family members cannot find mental health treatment or their loved one doesn't qualify for state-funded treatment because he or she isn't "dangerous," sometimes, they contact police with stories of assault or other crimes in order to get the person in jail where they believe the person will get care.

Others end up in jail for drug crimes after they attempt to self-medicate with illegal drugs or illegally obtained prescription medications. Sadly, for many people, it is easier to illegally acquire medication than it is to receive appropriate mental health care.

Clearly, the use of jails and prisons in place of mental health facilities is a pressing problem in Oklahoma. Appropriate funding of state mental health facilities and the expansion of access to care is critical. The Oklahoma legislature must act to solve this crisis.

 

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