Oklahoma mental health department fined for putting patients in jail

Oklahoma mental health department fined for putting patients in jail

The Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services was fined $500 a day by a judge for keeping a criminal defendant in jail who needed treatment.

Oklahoma County District Judge Susan Stallings last week found the department in direct contempt of court.

The contempt ruling is the latest example of the justice system’s longstanding frustration with state agencies charged with treating defendants whose criminal cases have been held up because of mental problems.

The problem is a lack of beds at the Oklahoma Forensic Center in Vinita, the state’s only facility that treats mentally incapacitated defendants.

In 2015, an Oklahoma County judge threatened to jail the then-mental health commissioner for not accepting defendants at the Vinita facility for six months. “You cannot ignore a court order,” the judge said.

That frustration intensified last year as the department increasingly experimented with jail-based capacity recovery programs because of space issues in Vinita. The department has been hit with civil rights lawsuits and been charged with contempt of court nearly 200 times.

“Prisons are not places to treat people with serious mental illness. Prisons are punitive in nature and are neither designed nor operated as treatment facilities,” attorneys complained in the lawsuit filed in federal court in Tulsa .

If a defendant is found to be mentally incapacitated, the criminal case is stayed. Under the law, incompetence is when a defendant is mentally incapable of assisting his attorney or understanding the charges against him.

Most defendants regained competency after receiving treatment and medication and were then further prosecuted. Some people never do this.

The Oklahoma Forensic Center has 216 beds and 80 more are about to be put into use, the senior deputy commissioner of the Department of Mental Health said in an interview last year. In addition, a converted residential substance abuse treatment center with 50 beds is located across the street.

“Frankly, OFC is really operating at capacity. That’s why we’re expanding,” said Senior Deputy Commissioner Durand Crosby.

The Oklahoma Forensic Center replaced Eastern State Hospital, which had 2,600 patients at its peak in the mid-1950s.

Also treated at the Oklahoma Forensic Center were patients who were found not guilty by reason of insanity, or, as it is now called, patients who were found not guilty by reason of insanity.

The Oklahoma Department of Mental Health said Thursday that 276 people are participating in prison competency programs.

Last year, 123 people regained competency through the programs, the department said.

Last June, the department was fined after a homeless man was accused of throwing a softball-sized rock at the owner of a Greek restaurant in Oklahoma City.

Zachary Lee Whitaker, 23, was charged in July with felony assault with a dangerous weapon. In a Nov. 17 order, the judge sent him to the Oklahoma Forensic Center for treatment to restore competency. The judge found the department deliberately violated her order.

The Department of Mental Health claims it acted in compliance with state law. The company said the law allows it to delay admissions “when such admissions would cause the facility to exceed its authorized capacity.”

The $500 fine begins Saturday and continues until Whitaker is transferred to the Vinita facility or another state mental health facility. Whitaker remained in jail Thursday.

“While we respectfully disagree with the court’s ruling, we are making every effort to comply with the order and allow this individual access to the Oklahoma Forensic Center,” the department said Thursday.

Last month, 27 defendants participated in competency restoration programs at the Oklahoma County Jail, according to testimony in other criminal cases.

The Department of Mental Health said there was “nothing new or unique” about the treatment of defendants in prison.

“States of every size do this, from California to Texas, from Virginia to Louisiana. And there are many more,” Assistant General Counsel Ryan Berry said in a legal motion wrote in.

On Jan. 12, a critic of the state’s prison program confirmed that inpatient treatment in a hospital setting is preferable.

“There are a lot of issues,” psychologist Sean Robertson said of Oklahoma County’s plan. “Number one, it doesn’t sound like there’s any type of intensive treatment going on.”

Robertson served as director of psychology at the Oklahoma Forensic Center. “That’s all I’m going to say,” he testified. “The advent of prison capacity is tied to litigation and long waiting lists. That’s the only reason it exists.

“The longer people are in the acute psychotic stage, the more difficult it is to recover.”

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