Properly recognizing and treating mental illness could save the
criminal justice system over the long haul, according to several
speakers at a meeting of a legislative task force studying jail
diversion of the mentally ill.
The Oklahoma House Mental Health Committee was conducting the
study under House Interim Study 99-47.
Dr. Robert Powitzky with the Department of Corrections told
committee members that 40 years ago when it was decided to reduce
the use of mental hospitals, many residents were released but later
ended up in prison.
In fact, 30 percent of the mental health patients were
"Prisons were never designed or intended to take care of the
mentally ill," he said.
Powitsky said that although the DOC could take care of the long-
term mentally ill if it were given such a mandate, that's not what
it was designed to do. The way the system is currently set up, some
people leave the corrections system worse than they came in because
they don't get appropriate mental health care, he said.
"We don't take out somebody's appendix in a nursing home," he
Jack Burden, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, told
committee members that without adequate treatment for mental
illness, mentally ill persons who are incarcerated stand a good
chance of re-offending.
"If we don't get adequate mental health treatment in prison, then
we get into a situation where $50 and a bus ticket gets them right
back in about three months, so we haven't saved anything," he said.
Floyd Long, with the Tulsa County Pre-Trial Release program, said
he did an informal study of people arrested in Tulsa County and
found that 10 percent to 11 percent self-reported having been
diagnosed with some sort of mental health problems.
He said tracking mental illness and making sure people arrested
receive adequate treatment might be made easier if confidentiality
laws were loosened. In addition, resolving cases quickly seems to
help, he said.
DOC officials said about 17 percent of the prison population have
been prescribed a psychotropic medication at some time, although
only about 200 beds are reserved specifically for inmates with
Bob Mann, with DOC, said that while inmates sometimes must be
segregated due to mental illness, the system has enough beds for
incarcerated men. However, he said he is concerned about a lack of
space for women inmates.
Turning to the issue of police dealing with mental health
patients, Long said often officers are not adequately trained to
recognize signs of mental illness. He said mental health patients
often need to be treated differently than the general population or
else situations can escalate to the point they are arrested and must
go through the system. …