Prison Diversion Program Helping Oklahoma's Mentally Ill

Wednesday, April 27th 2011, 9:56 pm
By: News On 6

Tammy Payne, Special Correspondent, Oklahoma Impact Team

SAND SPRINGS, Oklahoma -- In Sand Springs, Oklahoma, Hissom Memorial Mental Hospital is quiet, closed and part of the national trend of deinstitutionalization that began in the 1960s. Intentions were good, but the promise of community based care was broken, creating new asylums behind bars.

"If you have a brain disease, you are more likely to see the inside of a police car, a jail cell or a prison cell than you are to ever have access into a medical facility," said Terri White, Commissioner of Mental Health.

And the headlines are disturbing-- from Louisiana where the mentally ill have been held in small cages, to Oklahoma where federal investigators found thorozine and restraints in lieu of treatment at the Oklahoma County Jail.

Dr. Robert Powitzky is the lead mental health officer for the Department Of Corrections.

"Have we criminalized mental illness? Absolutely," Powitzky said.

Public defenders say they see it every day.

"We had a client recently who was arrested for the horrible crime of trying to break into the county jail because he was cold at night," Bob Ravitz, Oklahoma County public defender.

Some with psychological disorders find care in community based housing. Mental health experts say increasing community services would result in a radical humanitarian change.

Dr. Powitsky said 2,000 offenders could be released from prison every year at no risk to the community, which would be an annual savings of $25 million.

Brad is participating in a prison diversion program at Northcare in Oklahoma City.

"I had no hope, no hope," Brad said.

But Brad said he found hope in a program that allows him to live in the community while attending treatment.

Tulsa County deputies had to break up a village of people with mental illness along the Arkansas River, and because Oklahoma ranks critically low for mental hospital beds, many were forced to find new homes under bridges.

"In a lot of cases it is a great emergency," said Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz.

State records show the mentally ill are also at risk for sexual and other assaults at crowded jails across the state.

Dr. Powitzky says nothing prepares you for cases like this:

"The 17-year-old kids that I have talked about who have been traumatized their whole lives, they come to us and spend the rest of their lives in prison," he said.

Ironically, the state's tighter budget is fueling the debate on how the mentally ill could be far better served by spending far fewer dollars to get there.

"This program has saved a lot of lives. I know it has because it saved mine," Brad said.

The prison diversion program has saved taxpayers almost $2 million in one year, and the potential for more savings is out there since about 60 percent of prisoners with psychological disorders are non-violent.

This story is, in part, the product of Griffin Communications' (through its Oklahoma Impact Team) partnership with Oklahoma Watch, "a non-profit, investigative and in-depth reporting team that collaborates with other news organizations and higher education to produce journalism that makes a difference in the lives of Oklahomans." Oklahoma Watch's other media partners include The Oklahoman, The Tulsa World, OETA—The Oklahoma Network, and KWGS Public Radio. Oklahoma Watch is funded by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, the George Kaiser Family Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Tulsa Community Foundation.