When Oklahoma closed its psychiatric hospitals, the state turned patients into inmates. The Oklahoman says it will explore this issue in its “Epidemic Ignored” series, a yearlong project about the state’s mental health system. The newspaper found that mentally ill inmates are dying at an alarming rate, arguably because of inadequate care. “We celebrated the closings of these large hospitals — we were proud of it, and it was the right thing to do,” said Mike Brose, CEO of Mental Health Association Oklahoma. “But what we’ve done is basically replaced it with a system that’s worse. Now it’s incarceration, and there are not mental health professionals treating people and caring for them. It’s correctional officers, being asked to do something they’re not properly trained to do.” At last count, 60 percent of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections’ population of 17,000 have either symptoms or a history of mental illness.
The journey of Oklahomans with mental illnesses and substance use disorders into the criminal justice system starts in the county jail, where the number of inmates with mental illnesses continues to rise. One article will focus on the people who work in jails and the impossible job they’ve been given, caring for people with serious mental illnesses, often without the training or resources to do so. The state Department of Health’s jail inspection division, hit with budget cuts, has only 1.5 jail inspectors to inspect more than 100 facilities each year. Among potential solutions to the problem, Colorado Springs, Co., employs specialized three-person teams — made up of a medical professional, a mental health practitioner and a police officer — for calls where officers believe a person is suffering from untreated mental illness. The goal is to take the person to treatment, not jail.