Around twenty percent of American adults have a mental illness, but in a county jail system, about two-thirds of the inmates have one. Those with mental illnesses are also more likely to return to the prison, especially if they have an addiction.
Last Thursday, Feb. 9, the National Alliance on Mental Health-Tulsa invited the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office to present its new approach to inmates with mental illnesses.
Tulsa Sheriff Vic Regalado began with an overview of changes that he thinks allow the jail system to make “positive progress moving forward.” His office found a new medical provider, called Turn Key, and he said this was a significant change because of how collaborative they have been.
Their medical professionals will be housed in the newly constructed mental health “pod” along with the inmates, detention officers who have been trained in crisis and intervention and possibly a registered nurse with a mental health background. The Sheriff’s Office also created a discharge planning position for the pod, so there will be a full-time counselor to help discharged inmates readjust to life outside of prison.
Additionally, Regalado often gets emails from family members of people in jail who are trying to explain the medical needs of their loved ones. There will soon be a 1-800 number to call between 9-5 p.m. to inform pod staff members about these needs.
The pod is scheduled to open around March 1st. Chief Deputy Michelle Robinette said that the Sheriff’s Office visited many similar facilities around the country and tried to take the best aspects of all of them. Tulsa’s pod is divided into four levels.
The first floor is for suicidal inmates, and since they’re supposed to be kept under watch, their cells have glass front walls and officers will take shifts keeping an eye on the inmates there. Previously, suicidal inmates were transferred to the emergency room to be kept under watch, which Chief Robinette said was expensive and stressful for everyone involved.
The second floor also has glass walls that allow inmates a view of the third floor. Robinette said the third floor is where patients who consistently take their medication and don’t cause problems can play cards and watch television. Finally, the fourth floor is a community-style dorm for those who are almost ready to move back to the main prison facility but are not ready for eight to ten hours alone with one other person overnight. Inmates are in their own rooms but can still talk to their neighbors. There are windows and the walls are “baby blue.”
Chief Robinette also clarified that the pod will only house men. Tulsa county jails hold a little over 1600 inmates, and around 1300 of them are men. When Tulsa voters approved Proposition Two in 2014, the .026 cent sales tax meant to expand the jail facilities was only about the third of the money that the Sheriff’s Office wanted. Ultimately, Robinette said, the pod has 26 beds for men and there’s room to grow, but she hopes the existence of the pod will help free up other areas, such as the medical facility, for women.
Chief Robinette will have weekly meetings with staff members to determine whether Turn Key’s outcome measures indicate good results. The Sheriff’s Office is also working on programs that explore alternatives to jail for those who are homeless or have addictions. They plan to train officers on how to interact with people who have mental illnesses as well.
Turn Key’s medical professionals were hopeful that the Tulsa facility could “possibly become a role model for the rest of the country.” Universities like OSU and TU will have students involved. The medical staff includes a Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor and a couple of Licensed Professional Counselors, all of whom will also help determine whether inmates are faking illness to gain access to the new pod. Regarding treatment, the medical staff hopes to streamline the medication and doctor visit database, provide individual and group therapy and educate inmates on mental health in general.
Sheriff Regalado said he doesn’t like the idea that people with mental health issues are “crazy” or that they “can’t be helped” because his experiences have convinced him otherwise. He closed with saying that his office is doing the “best [they] can” with their tight budget and that they have a need for detention officers since the turnover rate is high. Everyone who spoke encouraged the audience to sign up for tours of the new facility.