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Tulsa Jail sees redemption in mental health facility set to open next month

Tulsa World - 3/29/2017

The Tulsa County Sheriff's Office in general, and its operation of the Tulsa County jail in particular, has taken some hits the past two years.

A high-profile shooting, allegations of sexual misconduct, confused finances and a $10 million wrongful death judgment are just some of the things that have tarnished TCSO's image.

So it is that just a little extra eagerness accompanies the opening in mid-April of the jail's mental health pods. The one-of-a-kind facility, said administrator Michelle Robinette, is a chance to prove TCSO and Tulsa County are doing some things right.

"Tulsa County is moving rapidly," said Robinette, a former chief deputy and jail administrator. "Tulsa should be proud of what we're doing here, and it's not just the Sheriff's Office. It's a consortium working together."

The mental health pods, part of a $15.9 million jail addition built and operated through a 0.041 percent county sales tax, are set to open on or about April 15. The jail still has some problems - new general population pods remain closed because of unexpected difficulty hiring detention officers, for instance - but the mental health facility is touted as perhaps the best in the country.

"It was built to promote mental health," Robinette said. "from the colors of the paint to the airy, open spaces and the skylights, everything was done with mental health in mind."

Up to 40 percent of Tulsa County jail inmates are prescribed psychotropic drugs, but Robinette estimates only 50 or so will be found seriously ill enough to be placed in the mental health pod.

That determination will be made on an individual basis, using a set of criteria that is still being finalized. Robinette said those with mental health diagnoses, but who are nevertheless stable, will be kept in the general population.

Those sent to the mental health pods will be assigned to one of four levels. Level 1 will be those on active suicide watch, and will receive particular attention. Level 2 will be inmates not considered suicidal, but who have uncontrolled behaviors.

Level 3 will be a "transitional" level for inmates whose symptoms seem to be controlled, but who require further observation.

Level 4 is a "dormitory-style" floor that can hold up to 80 prisoners who have shown themselves to be little or no threat to themselves or others.

Besides the trained detention officers, the mental health pod will also have a registered nurse with mental health experience on duty at all times, and the jail psychiatrist and psychologist will office in the pod.

Robinette said inmates with mental health problems typically stay in the jail four times longer than other inmates, so the idea is to not only treat them on-site, but to help them remain in treatment once they're released.

Working with health care provider Turn Key and community agencies such as Mental Health Association Oklahoma, the jail is trying to develop a network that will, over the long term, reduce the number of mentally ill people turning up at the jail more or less by default.

"The longer we say, 'See you,' and just release them, the longer we'll continue to see them back in the jail," Robinette said.


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