Years of alcohol abuse have taken a toll on Harold Hardesty, who once absorbed a hammer to the head in an argument over a bottle of whiskey.
Run-ins with the law, usually when drunk and disorderly, landed Hardesty, 58, in the Oklahoma County jail, where he remained for more than a year despite being diagnosed with alcohol-related dementia.
Until Thursday, when a judge signed an order placing him in a nursing home, Hardesty was one of approximately 350 inmates diagnosed with mental health issues, according to Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel.
Unlike Hardesty, most of the mentally impaired inmates are not candidates for nursing home care because they are violent offenders accused of committing major felony crimes.
Most of those crimes, Whetsel said, were committed because offenders “were off their medication” or “were a result of their mental health issues.”
The sheriff attributes the rise in mentally ill inmates to state funding cuts that resulted in a reduction in mental health facilities and services and forced some hospitals to close their psychiatric wards.
“You have seen an increase is jails across the state with mental health inmates that should be in a facility getting mental health care, that should be getting bed space,” Whetsel said. “I don't think county jail was ever intended to be a mental health facility.”
Loopholes in state law
Like Hardesty, who languished in the jail for more than a year, inmates wait until they go to trial or are ruled incompetent.
Some are put out on the street because of loopholes in state law that does not require state mental health facilities to find placement.
Those who are not competent and not considered dangerous cannot be confined by law, Oklahoma County First District Attorney Scott Rowland said.
Those who are dangerous and whose incompetence is due to mental illness are kept by the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, the prosecutor said.
“The problematic population are those who are not competent, not capable of achieving competence, are dangerous, but whose lack of competence is due to something other than mental illness,” Rowland said.
By law, no state agency is required to take someone like Hardesty, whose incompetence is caused by something other than mental illness,” the prosecutor said.
In late 2011, Hardesty was accused of assaulting a University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center police officer and then a jail nurse.
Last year, mental health professionals diagnosed Hardesty with alcohol-related dementia and found he could not consult with a lawyer and “rationally assist in the preparation of his defense.”
Hardesty was in danger of being returned to the streets until District Judge Donald Deason agreed to his conditional release, nearly a year after he directed the Department of Human Services and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to find appropriate placement.
“He's not prosecutable,” the judge said. “If they had not found a place for him I would have had no choice but to release him.”
Prosecutors suspended their felony case against Hardesty and dismissed a misdemeanor case involving the nurse.
Rowland called Hardesty's placement “the best possible outcome” because it protects the public and law enforcement while saving Hardesty from a return to the streets.