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New Tulsa Jail Expansion Increases Services For Mentally Ill

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TULSA, Oklahoma -

Tulsa County is about a take a significant step toward improving mental health care for inmates.

A new wing at the jail, built just for the mentally ill, is ready to open, but the sheriff's office needs to build up staff to handle more inmates now that the jail has more beds and a new philosophy.

By jail standards, it's open and airy. There is plenty of natural light in the new section of the jail, with light blue paint, and plenty of room.

Chief Deputy Michelle Robinette said, "The skylight allows for light which affects mental health, the mental state. A lot we saw didn't have this design, the room or the space. It's big, it's open."

The room is one of four new housing areas in the jail, with room for 280 inmates.

But this section is unique, not just in Oklahoma, possibly in the nation.

Sheriff Vic Regalado said, “This was constructed with the mental health needs of our inmates in mind, and for their safety as well."

It's designed for secure treatment of the mentally ill - all the way up to suicide watch.

"When these are occupied, an officer will be stationed at the desk and will have eyes on 24/7. That's to protect them," Robinette said.

The most secure mental health section has room for six inmates on suicide watch - 26 in all under the care of a psychiatrist and nurse who is stationed nearby.

It has a section for inmates unable to physically care for themselves. And, as the improve, they move up towards more freedom.

The jail expansion cost $15 million, and the sheriff said it will be filled as soon as he can find the staff to operate it.

The mentally ill are an increasing portion of the inmates.

Regalado said, "This is not just a law enforcement issue, it's a community issue."

And to that end, the sheriff noted taxpayers cannot build their way out of this problem - there are simply too many mentally ill people who get into trouble with the law.

He's working with community groups on intervention programs, hoping to turn around the trend of mentally ill people going to jail.

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