Jail staffs across Oklahoma are tasked with attempting to be mental health professionals, often with little or no training. In this, the second of a four-part series, The Oklahoman reports on how jails across the state have responded, or ignored, the needs of inmates with mental illnesses and substance use disorders. Oklahoma long has grappled with how to create a sustainable, comprehensive mental health system. The state has spent among the least in the nation on mental health care, while filling jails and prisons with people who wouldn’t be there if they could afford and access basic care for their brain disorders.
Imprisonment is not only the least effective form of “treatment” but also the costliest. The cost of a year of state-funded mental health treatment: $2,000. The cost of a year in prison for someone with serious mental illness: $23,000. Some 60 percent of the Oklahoma prison population — 17,000 people — have either symptoms or a history of mental illness. Often, before these Oklahomans are sentenced to prison, they spend months, if not years, cycling in and out of county jails. Reese Lane, Payne County jail administrator, is frustrated by the state’s lack of action. “(People in jail with mental illnesses) have no voice,” Lane said. “They can’t speak for themselves, and there’s not much of anybody speaking for them. (Her death) just made me a little more diligent to try to make sure they’re protected as well as everyone else.”