Innovative Oklahoma
By Sarah Etter, News Reporter
Published: 01/17/2007

The fact that many states are struggling to help the mentally ill offenders who are filling corrections facilities isn’t new news. In Oklahoma, however, a new partnership between corrections and community resources is making front page headlines. On February 1st, the state will kick off its Integrated Treatment Discharge Planning program with the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

“Everyone in the state agreed we needed to do a better job of releasing mentally ill offenders,” explains Dr. Robert Powitzky, the OKDOC’s chief mental health officer. “This is a nationwide problem, but Oklahoma is just starting to experience the brunt of what other states are dealing with, in terms of the mentally ill being incarcerated. The trend we’re seeing right now is essentially de-institutionalization to re-institutionalization.”

According to OKDOC data, about 12 percent of the 8,000 offenders released in 2006 had a serious mental illness. Many OK officials hope this state funded program becomes the thread that ties corrections and community resources together and provides seamless support for the mentally ill pre- and post-release.

“We really needed help to take ownership of discharge planning and decided to focus on interagency collaboration to address this issue,” Powitzky says. “With the help of the Department of Mental Health, we have a better shot at helping these folks. Everyone is on board now.”

The program will rely on intensive care coordination teams consisting of DMH experts working in Oklahoma’s corrections facilities. Inmates will have the opportunity to speak with DMH staff, who serve as discharge planning specialists, about registering for Social Security and Medicaid benefits pre-release, which officials say is a big step in the right direction.

“A large part of this program is working on federal benefits for these offenders prior to discharge,” explains Bob Mann, coordinator of social work services for the DOC. “It was a well known fact that if you could get federal benefits in place before release, offenders have a better chance of a streamlined transition between corrections and community health systems. A lot of the seriously mentally ill who are incarcerated could not obtain those benefits until now.”

Discharge planning specialists will determine the services that best meet offender needs. They also will ensure the continuation of care post-release by providing offenders with access to community-based treatment programs and by addressing housing and job needs they might have after release.

“This is a wrap-around discharge planning process that looks at housing, employment and reconnecting with family,” Mann says. “This plan represents a change in momentum for these offenders.”

Initially, the program will start off with about 30 offenders. Specialists will be available 24-hours per day to offer support at the Joseph Harp Correctional Center, the Oklahoma State Penitentiary and the Mabel Basset Correctional Center female facility.

Even though the help is there, inmates will be required to participate in their own planning, and Mann says they ultimately will be responsible for their own success.

“We are offering them the services they need, but they will be invested in their own future as well,” says Mann. “This isn’t soft on crime. It is smart on crime.”

As Oklahoma gets ready to offer a solution to this widespread problem, Powitzky reflects on how the issue came to light. He says the rush of mentally ill offenders entering corrections facilities across the country can be traced to the discovery of psychotropic medications in the 60s and a subsequent American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit.

“Once we had newer medications for these folks, people assumed they could function in the community as long as they took their meds. The ACLU filed a lawsuit that said the mentally ill should be held in the least restrictive environment possible, so we saw mental health facilities emptied,” Powitzky explains.

Powitzky testified at many of these lawsuit hearings, and says that after the closure of mental health facilities, the ACLU then filed suit against DOCs to provide mental health services.

“The problem is that the one symptom of mental illness is the assumption you don’t need your medication. So they end up off of their medication and acting inappropriately. The natural reaction in the community is to take anyone who isn’t acting normal off of the streets. Then the DOC has to address their issues,” he adds.

Despite the crunch of mentally ill offenders, Powitzky remains optimistic that the newest addition to OKDOC programming will make a difference for participants and the community.

“The only thing we can do is find a solution on a statewide level and Oklahoma is doing just that,” he says. “We’re all very proud of this proactive initiative, and there is nowhere else I’d rather be working.”

Bottom Line: Oklahoma has created an innovative combination by including mental health experts in their discharge planning. This program can help mentally ill offenders transition seamlessly back into their communities with the medications, resources, and housing they need to succeed.

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