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Study finds link between declining number of psychiatric beds, rising number of inmates with mental illnesses

Oklahoma County DA not surprised by a A nation wide 2012 survey that estimates there are close to 35,000 patients with severe mental illness in state psychiatric hospitals, but ten times that number in prisons and jails.
by Jean Williams Modified: May 14, 2014 at 12:29 pm •  Published: May 14, 2014
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photo - Photo via Thinkstock.com
Photo via Thinkstock.com

The number of people with serious mental illnesses in prisons and jails now exceeds the number in state psychiatric hospitals tenfold, according to a new report by the National Sheriff’s Association and The Treatment Advocacy Center.

The Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit organization focused on eliminating barriers to treating serious mental illnesses, published “The Treatment of Persons with Mental Illness in Prisons and Jails” in April, a report that consists of data from a nationwide survey conducted in 2012.

It estimated that there are close to 35,000 patients with severe mental illness in state psychiatric hospitals and 10 times that number in prisons and jails. Nationwide, there are 356,268 inmates with severe mental illness in prisons and jails.

In Oklahoma, nearly 12,000 of the 25,000 inmates in Oklahoma’s prisons have a history of or are currently exhibiting symptoms of severe mental illness, according to state corrections and mental health data.

About 79 percent of female inmates and 46 percent of male inmates have been diagnosed with a mental illness. Of these individuals, 57 percent were incarcerated for non-violent offenses. Out of all inmates in DOC custody, 33 percent were imprisoned for drug and alcohol offenses and at least 50 percent were incarcerated for a crime-related to substance abuse.

The new report by TAC found that most people with mental illnesses who are in prisons and jails would have been treated in state psychiatric hospitals in the years before the deinstitutionalization movement that led to the closing of hospitals, a trend that continues even today.

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said he witnessed that trend, which began in the ‘60s and became very apparent in the ‘80s when he was a police officer in Norman. He said promised community mental health resources were not built in adequate numbers to accommodate the need.

The intent in closing hospitals was to engage people with serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression in society.

More than 30 years later, psychiatric hospitals have almost entirely closed. Oklahoma’s largest state-run psychiatric hospital is the Oklahoma Forensics Center in Vinita. Its 200 beds are used only for patients who are found not guilty by reason of insanity and for people who need mental health treatment in order to stand trial.

Many with serious mental illness are successfully functioning in society --but far too many have ended up living in extreme poverty, are homeless or are in jail or prison, according to the TACreport.

And more problems can arise for people who are in prison and have a mental illness. For example, people with mental illnesses might have longer stays in prison, according to TAC’s report. They have trouble making bail and trouble following the rules. Poor behavior by those not being treated or by those whose medication use has been interrupted by an arrest can cause a lot of disturbance. Those with mental illness are also at least three times more likely to be the victim of an assault while incarcerated.


by Jean Williams
NewsOK Contributor
My degree in Psychology did not prepare me to recognize mental illness in my own family. I authored the brochure "What to do in a Mental Health Crisis in Oklahoma County," not because I had the answers, but because I didn't. A wide variety of...
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