The Oklahoman

Lawsuit Statefaili­ng jail inmates with mental illness

- Josh Dulaney

Citing a slow process for transferri­ng inmates out of local jails and into treatment centers, representa­tives of four people with mental illness are suing the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, and the Oklahoma Forensic Center.

The class-action lawsuit, which was filed in federal court, is asking that the defendants be ordered to develop a remedial plan to reduce wait times for competency restoratio­n treatment.

In Oklahoma, competency is defined as the ability of a person arrested for or charged with a crime to understand the nature of the charges and effectively and rationally assist in his or her defense.

A judge or attorneys concerned about a defendant’s competency may request the defendant’s competency be evaluated.

Criminal proceeding­s are suspended while the defendant is being evaluated. If the court determines the defendant is competent to stand trial, the criminal proceeding­s resume.

But the lawsuit says the state’s competency restoratio­n system is broken, and “scores of presumed-innocent Oklahomans who experience severe mental illness are languishin­g in county jails awaiting competency restoratio­n treatment for prolonged periods that far exceed constituti­onal limits.”

Named in the lawsuit are Carrie Slatton-Hodges, who is commission­er for the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, and Dr. Crystal Hernandez, executive director of the Oklahoma Forensic Center in Vinita.

The lawsuit was filed by Leslie Briggs, Evan Watson and Henry A. Mey

er, who are each referred to as attorneys licensed in Oklahoma.

Briggs is representi­ng a man and woman, each 42, in Tulsa County. Watson is representi­ng a 46-year-old Comanche County man.

Meyer is representi­ng a 22-year-old Oklahoma County man.

The lawsuit says the man has a history of mental health problems, including delusional and paranoid thinking, and a prior diagnosis of psychotic disorder.

On July 18, he allegedly walked into an apartment in Oklahoma City, stole a guitar and later told officers when no one answered the door, he decided to take the instrument, according to the lawsuit.

Later that night, he allegedly entered an apartment without permission, looking for a place to sleep. The lawsuit says he allegedly damaged plumbing fixtures and broke out a window to a neighborin­g unit so he could get inside “to pray.”

The man was charged in Oklahoma County District Court with second-degree burglary and grand larceny. Bail was set at $15,000.

The lawsuit says because the man is indigent, a public defender was appointed to represent him. However, when his attorney met with him, the man stared at the floor and answered most questions by saying, “I’m schizophre­nic.”

On Aug. 26, the man’s attorney filed an applicatio­n to determine competency.

On Dec. 5, he was declared incompeten­t and ordered to the Oklahoma Forensic Center.

As of the March 1 filing of the lawsuit, the man remained behind bars at the Oklahoma County jail, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit says his “mental and emotional condition deteriorat­es.”

In Oklahoma, people declared incompeten­t in court are often denied restoratio­n services while being “caged in county jails” that do not have treatment resources or expertise, the lawsuit says.

Some remain in jail more than a year before getting state treatment, according to the lawsuit.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs wrote that they believe the waitlist for those in Oklahoma jails seeking restoratio­n services is at least 100 people.

In an email, spokesman Jeffrey Dismukes with the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services said a review of the lawsuit has not been completed, but officials “disagree with its premise”

He said officials have worked to begin providing competency restoratio­n services in jails, meaning inmates no longer have to wait for treatment to begin.

Competency restoratio­n is a process by which behavioral health profession­als work with an individual to attain the ability to participat­e in their defense, Dismukes said.

“Most often this means prescribin­g medication to treat the individual’s mental illness,” he said. “Through medication, most individual­s are able to gain competency. More complex cases may still be scheduled for transport to the Oklahoma Forensic Center for additional treatment and training.”

Dismukes said the department also has explored options to reduce the number of people in jail due to behavioral health issues, including suggesting either jail diversions or outpatient competency restoratio­n treatment in the community.

“Through medication, most individual­s are able to gain competency.”

Jeffrey Dismukes Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services

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