(Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct the county jails where Turn Key Health Clinics provides medical and mental health services and include an emailed response from the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.)

More than 100 Oklahomans are languishing in county jails while awaiting court-ordered mental health treatment, according to a federal class-action lawsuit filed Wednesday against two state mental health officials.

Courts found the four plaintiffs described in the lawsuit incompetent to stand trial and ordered their transfer to the Oklahoma Forensic Center in Vinita, where they were to receive mental health treatment before their criminal cases could proceed. The lawsuit alleges all remain in county jails “for prolonged periods that far exceed constitutional limits.” 

That treatment, known as competency restorative care, includes counseling, education, medication and therapy. Though jails are intended as short-term detention centers, the plaintiffs’ waits for treatment range from three months to nearly one year, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit names as defendants Carrie Slatton-Hodges, commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, and Crystal Hernandez, executive director of the Oklahoma Forensic Center in Vinita. The state mental health department is responsible for providing restoration treatment within a reasonable time and operates the forensic center, the state’s largest in-patient treatment hospital and the only facility providing those services for defendants in 77 counties.

The lawsuit alleges the state mental health department and forensic center are denying plaintiffs timely and appropriate treatment, violating their 14th Amendment rights to due process and violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“I think the most pressing concern is there doesn’t seem to be enough resources devoted to providing the restoration services to these folks,” said Paul DeMuro, lead counsel for the plaintiffs who seek no monetary damages. “And as a result, they’re being punished effectively simply because they’re mentally ill. And one must remember that these are people that are legally presumed innocent. And in many of these cases, the crimes are low-level crimes.”

According to a statement emailed to Oklahoma Watch by a department of mental health spokesman Thursday, the department disagrees with the premise of the lawsuit and has begun work to provide competency restoration services “in the jail setting,” which would end the wait for treatment.

“Most often this means prescribing medication to treat the individual’s mental illness,” according to the statement. “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.”

The department has explored options such as jail diversions or outpatient treatment as alternatives to reduce the number of people in jail due to behavioral mental health issues, according to the statement.

In November, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation to determine whether Oklahoma fails to provide community-based mental health services to people in Oklahoma County, leading to unnecessary admissions to psychiatric facilities and police contact. Investigators will also examine Oklahoma City and its police department’s response to people in crisis.

“Jails have become the state’s de-facto mental health hospitals,” Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado said in a Feb. 8 interview with Oklahoma Watch.

The lawsuit describes the plaintiffs as:

*A 42-year-old woman identified only as T.W., who was jailed last March after Tulsa police were dispatched to an IHOP restaurant where she was believed to be trespassing. Charged with obstruction and assaulting the officer while seated and handcuffed in a patrol car, she has spent 239 days in jail since Tulsa County District Court found her incompetent to stand trial, according to the lawsuit. The court ordered that she be provided competency restoration services within 14 days. She was No. 16 on the Oklahoma Forensic Center’s competency wait list as of Feb. 1, according to the lawsuit.

*A 42-year-old Tulsa man with a history of schizophrenia and auditory hallucinations. Identified only as B.S., he remains in Tulsa County jail on a $5,000 bond and has waited 348 days since the court ordered him to be transported to Vinita when a bed becomes available. The lawsuit states B.S. was arrested in August 2021 for allegedly kicking a security officer at a local hospital. 

*A 46-year-old Comanche County man with a history of depression and anxiety. Identified as C.R., he faces 2021 charges that include destruction of property, breaking and entering and defacing a house of worship by breaking three windows. Found incompetent to stand trial in 2022, he has waited 182 days for competency restorative services.

*A 22-year-old man jailed in Oklahoma County with a history of delusional and paranoid thinking and a prior diagnosis of psychotic disorder. Identified as A.M., he was charged with second-degree burglary and grand larceny in July for the theft of a guitar and damaging plumbing fixtures and a window while attempting to enter a neighboring apartment unit “to pray.” His wait for restorative services stands at 86 days.

“They’re spending more time languishing in jail, waiting for restoration services than they would if they could plead guilty and get the cases over with or go to trial,” said DeMuro, whose Tulsa law firm Frederic Dorwart, Lawyers PPLC is handling the case with the Oklahoma Disability Law Center. “And that’s the thing. They’re in this really horrifying purgatory where their cases are on hold because they’re not competent to even go to trial or enter a plea.”

In 2017, the Tulsa County jail opened two mental health units with a combined capacity of 100. It is the only county in the state with a mental health unit.

“Preferably, we’d like to treat our mentally ill outside of the jail but the state of Oklahoma has dropped the ball on that,” Regalado said. “People who commit crimes have to be held accountable, but if they’re suffering from SMI (severe mental illness), we have an obligation to treat them.”

Three plaintiffs were detained in county jails where medical and mental health services are provided by Turn Key Heath Clinics, an Oklahoma City-based company facing lawsuits in Arkansas, Colorado and Oklahoma filed on behalf of detainees who died in Turn Key’s care. Turn Key does not service Comanche County but is the medical and mental health contractor for Cleveland County, where two women died in December while waiting for mental health evaluations in jail.

Ashlynd Huffman covered criminal justice for Oklahoma Watch. Contact her at Huffmanashlynd@gmail.com and 405-240-6359. Follow her at @AshlyndHuffman.

Whitney Bryen is an investigative reporter at Oklahoma Watch covering vulnerable populations. Her recent investigations focus on mental health and substance abuse, criminal justice, domestic violence and nursing homes. Contact her at (405) 201-6057 or wbryen@oklahomawatch.org. Follow her on Twitter @SoonerReporter.

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