Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado is proud of the mental health programs at his jail, but he wishes he didn’t have them, he said Monday.
“It’s going to be nice to hear that a jail is doing these things,” Regalado told an Oklahoma House of Representatives panel. “But when you think about it, a jail is doing these things, and that’s the depressing part of it all.”
Jails, Regalado said, are “the de facto mental health facilities in Oklahoma, and if that doesn’t cause you embarrassment, shame, all those negative feelings, it should. Because it means we’ve said mental illness means absolutely nothing in the state of Oklahoma.”
Regalado was among seven witnesses — including four from the Tulsa area — to speak to a House Public Safety interim study on mental health alternatives to incarceration.
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Regalado and Haskell County Sheriff Tim Turner described the challenges of dealing with mental health in their respective jails from near-opposite ends of the resources spectrum.
Regalado’s county has a tax dedicated for mental health services in jail with a segregated mental health ward and its own psychiatrist.
Turner is in charge of a department with just nine full-time deputies and little access to mental health services. When he became sheriff in 2017, Turner said, his personnel said they tried to “stay away” from mental health cases because they were so time consuming.
In time, Turner said, “What did I see? I saw people who kept reoffending coming to our criminal justice center that, OK, yes, they’re substance abusers. They’re thieves. They’re stealing to support their habit. Their stealing to support their needs. But what are we really doing? We continue to put them in jail. They continue to bond out; they get a suspended sentence; they get probation; they come right back. We’re not really helping that individual.”
Turner said he’s been able to work out a shoe-string budget diversion program with Haskell County District Attorney Chuck Sullivan and District Judge Brian Henderson, but he said finding mental health beds or even mental health assistance is difficult at best.
“They won’t treat an individual who’s incarcerated,” Turner said. “You know why they won’t treat an individual who’s incarcerated? Because they won’t get any money for that individual who’s incarcerated.
“Those beds in Oklahoma are not for county sheriffs’ offices,” Turner said. “These beds in Oklahoma are for people who have insurance and who have money.”
Expanded Medicaid might have helped, he said, except that people in jail are ineligible for Medicaid. The only way they can become eligible is for the charges to be dropped, which Turner said often results in the person in question skipping treatment.
Turner also panned a new state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services program that provides computer tablets to rural sheriff’s offices. That tablets are supposed to provide instant access to a mental health professional, but Turner said they seldom do.
“When you press the button on the iPad, nobody answers it,” he said. “You can continue to press that button for 45 minutes to an hour, and then you have to make a phone call. They’ll say, ‘Get your iPad and press the button.’ Well, by God, we’ve already done that 10 times, and it ain’t worked.”
Regalado has many more resources, but he also has many more people in his jail. Since the jail’s 100-bed mental health pods were completed several years ago, Regalado said, it has rarely been at anything other than capacity.
Quite often, inmates in the mental health pod leave the jail before reaching the fourth tier, which is for inmates in their final stages of treatment, Regalado said.
One potential area of improvement, he said, is finding ways to hand off such individuals to facilities or programs as they leave the jail.
Regalado said the Tulsa County jail has perhaps the best setup in the state and one of the best in the nation for mental health, but he warned that it is not financially sustainable, not even with the dedicated county tax — at least in its current form.
“We’re flush with money we can’t spend,” he said, referring to restrictions on the funds.
“I’ve been very proud of our programs,” Regalado said. “I’ve been very proud with how we’re handling mental illness in our jail. But it’s time for us to come to an end on that at some point.
“Everything I mentioned to you costs us a couple million (dollars) a year. We can’t sustain that. And … law enforcement is not inherently in a position to treat mental illness, nor should we.”
When Tulsa County opened its mental health pods in 2017, Regalado said, “we had law enforcement agencies across Oklahoma going, ‘Hey, do you have any free beds we could take this individual to?’ I had to remind them we’re a jail. Unless you’re getting booked, we’re not treating people for mental illness.
“But that says something to the state of affairs here in Oklahoma in regards to where you can take people suffering from mental illness.”
2016 photos from Tulsa Jail