The new asylums
In Oklahoma and nationwide, the remark is heard so often, it’s becoming a truism: Prisons now are de facto mental institutions.
But repeating the words hasn’t halted the trend.
“It’s a travesty,” said Robert Powitzky, who retired as chief mental health officer in 2013 after 14 years at the Department of Corrections. “We’re really getting the people society doesn’t want to address.”
As a beginning psychologist in the 1970s, Powitzky said he remembers touring the state’s prison facilities, which were filled with hardened criminals. When he returned to the prisons in the 1990s, they looked like psychiatric hospitals, he said.
“There are some mentally ill people who should be in prison,” Powitzky said. But “50 percent of the inmates with severe mental illness should not be in prison.”
The growing numbers correlate with a decrease in community mental-health services across the state, said Morgan, Powitzky’s successor.
“It’s been steadily increasing for the past five years — during the past couple of years, an even sharper increase in those numbers,” Morgan said. “As the resources in the community and the public have decreased, the mentally ill are coming into prison at a much higher rate.”
Officials in the corrections and mental health fields say they expect the numbers of mentally ill inmates to continue rising unless community programs and alternative sentences for nonviolent offenders with mental-health needs are expanded.
A mental health grade
When a prisoner is brought to the corrections department’s Lexington Assessment and Reception Center, he is evaluated for mental illness symptoms.
The assessment takes into account a prisoner’s mental health history and allows the department to classify his problems, Morgan said. Those with no history or evidence of mental-health problems are classified as “0.” Those with a history of mental illness, but no current symptoms or episodes in the previous year and not in need of psychotropic medication, receive an “A.”
Those who show varying degrees of mental illness and need medications are classified as B, C or D, with D being the most severe cases, Morgan said.
Three prisons in the state specialize in incarcerating offenders with mental illness: Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud, for female inmates; Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, for maximum-security male prisoners, and Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington, for community corrections and minimum- and medium-security male prisoners.
When the Harp Center was built in 1978, it had four cell houses. Now it has eight, holding around 1,400 inmates, of whom 500 to 600 fall into one of the B, C or D categories, Warden Mike Addison said.
Unlike most other facilities, Harp has its own mental-health unit, with 120 beds and 30 “safe cells” that have tamper-proof lighting and extra beds for inmates suffering an episode that may endanger themselves or others, Addison said. The facility also has a 100-bed mental-health “step-down” unit that helps a prisoner who suffered an episode ease back into the facility’s general population, he said.
Other prisons around the state, including private ones, will often send offenders who develop mental health issues or have a psychotic episode to Harp, Addison said. However, there often is a waiting list to get into the facility, and other prisons, which usually have only a single safe cell, must make do until bed space becomes available.
“We’re pretty full,” Addison said. “We very seldom have an open bed. And if we have an open bed, someone is usually on their way.”