A judge's gavel sits atop a sound block, with the faded backdrop of cursive writing from historic documents.

A judge’s gavel sits atop a sound block, with the faded backdrop of cursive writing from historic documents.

Citing a slow process for transferring inmates out of local jails and into treatment centers, representatives of four people with mental illness are suing the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, and the Oklahoma Forensic Center.

The class-action lawsuit, which is filed in federal court, is asking that the defendants be ordered to develop a remedial plan to reduce wait times for competency restoration treatment.

In Oklahoma, competency is defined as the ability of a person arrested for or charged with a crime to understand the nature of the charges and effectively and rationally assist in his or her defense.

A judge or attorneys concerned about a defendant’s competency may request that the defendant’s competency be evaluated.

Criminal proceedings are suspended while the defendant is being evaluated. If the court determines the defendant is competent to stand trial, the criminal proceedings resume.

But the lawsuit says the state’s competency restoration system is broken, and “scores of presumed-innocent Oklahomans who experience severe mental illness are languishing in county jails awaiting competency restoration treatment for prolonged periods that far exceed constitutional limits,” the lawsuit says.

Named in the lawsuit are Carrie Slatton-Hodges, who is the commissioner Department, and Dr. Crystal Hernandez, the executive director of the Oklahoma Forensic Center in Vinita.

The lawsuit was filed by Leslie Briggs, Evan Watson and Henry A. Meyer, who are each referred to as attorneys licensed in Oklahoma.

Briggs is representing a man and woman, each 42, in Tulsa County. Watson is representing a 46-year-old Comanche County man.

Meyer is representing a 22-year-old Oklahoma County man.

The lawsuit says the man has a history of mental health problems, including delusional and paranoid thinking, and a prior diagnosis of psychotic disorder.

On July 18, he allegedly walked into an apartment in Oklahoma City, stole a guitar and later told officers when no one answered the door, he decided to take the instrument, according to the lawsuit.

Later that night, he allegedly entered an apartment without permission, looking for a place to sleep. The lawsuit says he allegedly damaged plumbing fixtures and broke out a window to a neighboring unit so he could get inside “to pray.”

The man was charged in Oklahoma County District Court with second degree burglary and grand larceny. Bail was set at $15,000.

The lawsuit says because the man is indigent, a public defender was appointed to represent him. However, when his attorney met with him, the man stared at the floor and answered most questions by saying “I’m schizophrenic.”

On Aug. 26, the man’s attorney filed an application to determine competency.

On Dec. 5, he was declared incompetent and ordered to the Oklahoma Forensic Center.

As of the March 1 filing of the lawsuit the man remained behind bars at the Oklahoma County jail, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit says his “mental and emotional condition deteriorates.”

In Oklahoma, people declared incompetent in court are often denied restoration services while being “caged in county jails” that do not have treatment resources or expertise, the lawsuit says.

Some remain in jail more than a year before getting state treatment, according to the lawsuit.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs wrote that they believe the waitlist for those in Oklahoma jails seeking restoration services is at least 100 people.

In an email, Spokesman Jeffrey Dismukes with the Department said a review of the lawsuit has not been completed, but officials “disagree with its premise”

He said officials have worked to begin providing competency restoration services in jails, meaning inmates no longer have to wait for treatment to begin.

Competency restoration is a process by which behavioral health professionals work with an individual to attain the ability to participate in their defense, Dismukes said.

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

Dismukes said the Department has also explored options to reduce the number of people in jail due to behavioral health issues, including suggesting either jail diversions or outpatient competency restoration treatment in the community.

“Our hope is that more courts will take advantage of these opportunities and, when possible, allow those persons to transfer to a community treatment setting,” he said.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Lawsuit alleges jail inmates in Oklahoma receive no treatment for mental illness



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