The Tulsa, OK, county jail used to place their mentally ill inmates in the same bare cells as everyone else. Now, the jail sports a new mental health pod, where some of those inmates can access a more relaxed and therapeutic environment, according to a report from the Tulsa World. That is a step up, proponents say, but it’s not a solution. The root of the problem, David Van Risseghem of the Public Policy Committee for the National Alliance on Mental Illness told the World, “we’re criminalizing mental illness. We’re punishing people instead of helping them.”
The 106-bed pod opened in April of last year with funding from a voter-approved tax increase. Currently, it is only open to men; women and juveniles are housed in the jail’s medical wing.
The crux of the problem, however, is since many state-run mental health facilities closed in the 1960s and ’70s, the number of mentally ill people incarcerated has risen, leaving it to the corrections facilities to make do.
“Those people didn’t just go away, said Jail Administrator David Park. “ Now we’re treating them in jails and in prisons.”
The new mental health pod is in a level four security setting. It is divided based on the needs of inmates: one side is under 24-hour suicide watch, while the other was compared to dorm living with access to recreation yards and television.
The new housing units are always full, according to Park, and DOC records indicated more than half the state’s prison population has a history of mental illness.
“Is it big enough? Probably not. I would say ‘build it, and they will come,’” Park said. “If we could add capacity tomorrow, it would fill up. But you have to manage the resources that you have, and I would say we’re doing that pretty well.”
Although the jail has a psychologist and psychiatrist on staff, it’s not a mental hospital.
“We’re a jail,” Park told the Tulsa World. “We’re doing our best to give people treatment they need, but we’re still a jail, and we can’t change that.”
The families of mentally-ill jail inmates believe more change is necessary.
When Mary Welton went to the new mental health pod to visit her son, she was shocked to find him inside a cell with bare white walls, a stainless steel toilet and a slab for a bed, according to the article.
“Even after all these years,” said Welton, “I wasn’t prepared for how lonely he looked.” Prior to this visit, she had always gone to a designated visiting area.
Her son, Jeff Welton, suffers from paranoid delusions, which has led to many arrests over the years, including this latest one in 2016. His mother says Jeff’s mental condition has deteriorated since then and he sometimes doesn’t recognize her or his father.
According to the Tulsa World, she said bitterly, “If they can’t deal with psyche-patient issues in jail, they should not put them in jail.”