Officials say jails filling up with mentally ill inmates

Monday, November 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ County jails across Oklahoma are crowded with inmates who would be better served by mental health facilities, officials say.

``It's almost a crime to put many of them here because we are not really a hospital,'' said Bob Ferguson, health services administrator for the Oklahoma County jail.

Ferguson said the jail regularly violates court orders requiring inmates to be transferred to mental health facilities because there's no place else to put them.

``We want to get people care, but it's not humanly possible,'' Ferguson said. ``There's not enough room, not enough staff, not enough detention officers, not enough anything. Our goal is to do them no more harm.''

Because of the growth in severely mentally ill inmates, the state prison system has started treating them, said Dr. Robert Powitzky, chief mental health officer for the Corrections Department.

``Time after time, we get people who have been in psychiatric hospitals and in treatment all their lives and now they're here because they have assaulted a worker at a mental health center who doesn't have the means to handle them or they have hit an officer,'' Powitzky said. ``It's sad because judges don't have any options other than to send them to us.''

The state has begun downsizing lockdown mental health hospitals in a plan to privatize much of the state's mental health treatment system. The number of beds at mental hospitals has shrunk from about 1,000 in 1991 to about 300 now. Most of those are short-term care.

``There is this thought that because we shut down the hospitals, there is no mental illness. That just is not the case,'' said Bonnie Dunn, operator of a transition house in Norman that integrate clients back into the community.

Mental health professionals agree treating the mentally ill in a community setting is better than putting them inside hospitals. But that's not always easy to do.

``My thought right now is we need to continue to build up our community-based services,'' said Terry Cline, the director of the Mental Health Department. ``If we build community services, we will shrink the need for in-patient care.''

He said he will know when community services are adequate when the state has empty hospital beds.

Dunn thinks the effort to convert mental health care from in-patient care to the community already has gone too far.

``When deinstitutionalization took an accelerated mode, we opened the doors and forgot to close them,'' she said.

``Ten years ago when folks came out of the hospitals, they had stayed there longer and had more time to stabilize. When they came to us, half of them already had jobs. But now it's rare that anybody is that far along when they come to us.''