Before he was locked up in the Tulsa County jail, James Alexander lived in a hole in the ground.
That hole was under Interstate 44 in east Tulsa, and there he slept, ate and stored his belongings, including food he had stolen from nearby stores. He lived with depression related to bipiolar II disorder.
In jail for nearly two years since, Alexander, 30, now has a stable life. He is locked up 23 hours a day but gets steady meals. He is offered medication but refuses to take it.
His red beard is wiry and his fingernails long and yellowed.
“I’m on a good phase,” he says in a pleasant demeanor, though he talks in rambling non sequiturs at times.
For years it has been a truism that Oklahoma’s prisons have become de facto mental institutions, with about a third of inmates showing current signs of mental illness.
Less often mentioned are the mentally ill in jails – places that have fewer resources to treat people with mental disorders.
To the general public, jails can seem merely brief way-stops for people convicted of minor crimes and suspects awaiting trial on more serious charges. But jails also serve as regular, off-and-on destinations for many offenders each year who repeatedly commit non-violent crimes such as trespassing, theft and public intoxication. Jail officers call them “boomerangs,” and many are mentally ill.
At the Tulsa jail, at least 200 inmates have mental illness at any one time, according to a 2014 report by the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. The Oklahoma County Jail has as many as 500 mentally ill inmates, the report said.
Nationally, a 2010 estimate by the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs’ Association put the percentage of jail inmates with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, at 14 percent. A 2006 study by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 62 percent of jail inmates had current or recent mental health problems; three-fourths had substance abuse issues.
Michael Brose, executive director of Mental Health Association Oklahoma, said relatively little treatment is given to jail inmates.
“In the smaller rural counties I think it would be almost nonexistent above a suicide watch,” Brose said. “When you talk about metro jails (Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Lawton) … it might be a little bit more than that, but not considerably. It’s minimal. That’s what we’re fighting.”
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