Sheriffs Tell Lawmakers They Need More Help Getting Oklahomans Mental Health Treatment

Sep 14, 2021

A mental health unit of the Tulsa County jail is divided into four tiers: suicidal inmates, those not able to be outside a cell because of behavior problems, those following a program of medication but not ready for general population, and those that seem to be ready to join other jail inmates.
Credit Matt Trotter / KWGS

County sheriffs told Oklahoma lawmakers during an interim study they need them to do more to improve the state’s mental health system. 

Sheriff Vic Regalado described the Tulsa County Jail’s tiered mental health pods and other recent local efforts designed to keep people in need of treatment out of the criminal justice system. Regalado said law enforcement has come a long way since he started with Tulsa Police in the 1990s, telling lawmakers police called to deal with a person threatening suicide in those days were probably just as likely to scare them into pulling the trigger as into putting down a gun.

"Now we are very good at getting people out and getting them the help that they need. The point behind all of that is, again, that law enforcement has evolved immensely, and it seems that everybody else outside has taken two steps back. And that is a problem," Regalado said.

Sheriff Tim Turner said in rural Haskell County, nothing has improved. He told lawmakers while deputies were issued iPads to get people in crisis in touch with mental health professionals immediately, calls placed using them largely go unanswered.

Turner said deputies often get stuck for hours in a hospital during a pandemic with people experiencing a mental health emergency outside of 8 a.m. to5 p.m., trying to get them the proper evaluation, and there are rarely beds available. So, people in need of help can end up waiting on the floors of facilities he thinks are in worse shape than his jail.

Turner also sharply criticized policies that have led to a dearth of psychiatric beds statewide for adolescents with severe developmental disabilities. He told lawmakers that's resulted in his agency arresting for armed robbery a 19-year-old who can’t speak and who needs her teddy bear to remain calm in a cell.

"Our facilities are not for mental health. Our facilities are for bad people. Our facilities are [for] people who continue to reoffend. And if we want Oklahoma to be a top-10 state, we have to quit putting a Band-Aid on mental health, and we have to fix it. And it starts right here at Oklahoma City at the capitol," Turner said.

National Alliance of Mental Illness Tulsa board member Donna Frick confirmed to lawmakers a statement Turner made: Mental health treatment in Oklahoma is for people with the means to pay.

"It is very much a 'Do you have insurance?' kind of mental illness system that we have in this state. It's shocking, and it's truly horrifying to me," Frick said.

Frick said more people have access to mental health services through Medicaid expansion, but Turner told lawmakers people lose those kinds of benefits when they’re incarcerated.

Both Turner and Regalado put some of the blame for their situations on crime reclassifications voters approved in 2016, saying it not only took away the threat of jail that forced some to seek treatment, but it also hasn’t resulted in any additional funds for mental health services as laid out in an accompanying state question.