How funding mental health services could reduce incarceration in Oklahoma
Written By: Mollie Bryant
(TULSA, Okla.) Regina Striplin hadn’t spoken with her son, Hunter Hines, for about a year when she got a call from her ex-husband. Hines was missing. So was his girlfriend’s 12-year-old daughter, who the couple suspected was with Hines.
Striplin had spent most of Hines’ life trying to “fix” him. As a kid, he was incredibly intelligent and loving, but he had a temper that transformed him into a person she couldn’t recognize.
Hines eventually was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, as well as bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions.
By the time he was 17, Hines had started self-medicating with drugs, and he grew increasingly aggressive. Striplin said Hines would hold her hostage in his room, and once, he chased her with a lead pipe.
During their worst argument, Hines beat Striplin. She defended herself with pepper spray from the duty belt she used for her job at the Tulsa County jail, where she worked at the time.
“I could not for the life of me swing back,” she said. “That’s my child.”
Striplin’s husband called the police, but by the time they arrived, Hines had run away. After the fight, he moved out to live with his father and grandparents, and he dropped out of school.
Now he was missing, and it would take police three days to find him.
In 2013, Hines, then 18, was charged with two misdemeanors. He received multiple sexual assault and indecency charges, which were either dismissed or for which a jury found him not guilty.
Since then, Hines has served time on other charges that Striplin, who lives in Nowata, links to his mental health diagnoses, which she said make it difficult for him to understand the consequences of his actions.
“He can only react, so what I mean by that is, he can’t think, ‘If I do this, this is going to happen.’ He literally can’t,” Striplin said. “He can look back and say, ‘Oh, this happened because I did that,’ but by then it’s too late.”
Signs of Oklahoma’s strained mental health care system run throughout the state’s jails and prisons, which incarcerate people with mental illnesses at disproportionately high rates.
During the pandemic, the need for mental health and substance use treatment services has risen. At the same time, law enforcement agencies and defense attorneys say that increased homelessness has compounded those needs. The unsheltered are also more likely than others to experience police encounters and arrest.
“We keep treating this as a criminal justice issue, when really it is a civil issue that we need to get people in the right kind of treatment and keep them in treatment,” said Robert Ravitz, chief public defender for Oklahoma County. “Until we do that and realize we shouldn’t be arresting mentally ill people on misdemeanors or low-level felonies, we’re going to continue to have a problem, and it’s going to get worse.”
Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado said law enforcement agencies have expanded crisis intervention training in recent years, but they aren’t mental health professionals.
“I would say 95% of the interviews I do with media outlets, … it’s always about what the jail is failing to do and not what government, city, county leaders have failed to do in terms of providing those services outside of the jail,” he said. “We are providing a Band-Aid in the jail setting, but we’re not impacting them as they leave our jail and go back into our community, and that’s a problem.”
Needing help ‘from the get-go’
Hines is currently serving a four-year prison sentence for charges related to a 2020 traffic stop that ended in a police chase.
News on 6 reported no police were injured during the incident, but Hines was charged and convicted for assault and battery on a police officer because he had backed into a police car, damaging its front bumper.
Hines is afraid of police and sometimes has trouble understanding their orders, Striplin said. She put a sign on the driver’s side seatbelt in his car to notify police that he’s autistic and doesn’t respond to questions as quickly as other people.
“Hunter flees for a reason,” Striplin said. “He literally flees out of terror – not because he’s trying to be an *** but because he’s terrified that the second they get out of the car that they’re going to beat the **** out of him.”
When Jayson Dudley was 17, his mother asked Dudley’s grandmother, Michelle Hughes, if he could move into her home in Tulsa. He’d started getting in trouble, and at the same time, he was coping with depression and had attempted suicide.
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Hughes said he experienced trauma as a child, and he was later diagnosed with schizophrenia, depression and an anxiety disorder.
“He just needed help from the get-go,” she said.
Dudley faced several gun charges in juvenile court and spent time in a group home in Norman. Hughes said he did well there, in part because he had access to mental health medication.
After he turned 18, he landed a job at the Amazon warehouse in Owasso, but Hughes said he had trouble with basic life skills, like managing money.
Last year, he was arrested on a gun charge, and in March, on his 19th birthday, he attempted suicide in the Tulsa County jail.
“They didn’t have him on medications,” Hughes said. “Finally, I got his public defender to talk to the jail and get him on medications because he does good when he’s on his medication. When he’s not, he just doesn’t do well. He paces the floor for hours at a time.”
Regalado said concerns about medications are the most common type of call he gets from family members of those held in the jail. He said that’s usually because the jail only provides generic brands that might be different from what they were used to taking or because the person detained didn’t mention the medication during a health assessment that’s required during booking.
Regalado said he couldn’t think of a time when the staff forgot or made a mistake with medications.
Access to mental health medication spotty in some jails and prisons
State standards require jails to provide prescriptions to those in custody and ensure they take the medication.
Like Hughes, Striplin said access to necessary medications hasn’t been consistent for her son in jail or prison.
While Hines was in the Rogers County jail in 2013, Striplin said she brought his mental health medications to the jail for eight months before she discovered he hadn’t been getting them. A month later, he received a federal charge after attempting to mail a threat to former President Barack Obama. Striplin said he wrote the letter because he mistakenly thought it would help his case move through the court faster.
Hines is serving time in the North Fork Correctional Center in Sayre, where Striplin said his access to medication has been inconsistent, with stretches of days or weeks without them.
“Some days he’ll get it, some days he won’t,” she said. “I’ll have to call up there raising hell.”
Rogers County jail and North Fork prison didn’t respond to messages requesting interviews.
Those held at the Oklahoma County jail also have dealt with inconsistent access to medications.
Four state health department inspections conducted between February 2021 and April of this year each reported the jail failed to provide medications to people in the jail. Sometimes entire pods or floors didn’t receive their prescriptions. One inspection said staff gave medication to the wrong inmate for weeks.
In June last year, medical staff told investigators they often couldn’t provide medications and other medical care because a jail escort wasn’t available in the understaffed facility.
Jail spokesperson Mark Opgrande said the medication violation from the April inspection, marked as a repeat deficiency in the report, “was an isolated incident with one staff member who has been retrained.”
He added that medical staff licensed to administer medications have also received training, and the jail “has reminded all staff members dispensing medication of their duties and will monitor their compliance.”
Ariel Joseph, regional program director for Red Rock Behavioral Health Services in the Oklahoma City metro, said Red Rock’s clients and mental health court participants have sometimes reported challenges getting their mental health needs met in jails, including accessing medication. In those cases, Red Rock will connect with a correctional officer who assists with county diversion programs, and the officer will visit the client.
“I think ideally we would want them to get their meds every day, just like out here,” Joseph said. “We would see more stability in clients or in inmates if that was able to happen a majority of the time.”
Six years after passing, community services from State Question 781 remain unfunded
In 2016, Oklahoma voters approved two state questions aimed to reduce incarceration. One initiative, State Question 780, reduced certain low-level drug and property crimes to misdemeanors.
That measure was paired with State Question 781, which promised to channel savings from State Question 780 toward community services meant to further decrease incarceration, including mental health and substance use services. The savings could also potentially go toward reentry, housing and employment services.
Years later, state lawmakers still haven’t funded State Question 781. David Gateley, criminal justice policy analyst for the Oklahoma Policy Institute, said his organization estimates annual savings that should be going toward the measure amount to about $20 million.
“We know (State Question 780) is working because we’ve seen a marked decrease in incarceration since it passed,” Gateley said. “That’s a good thing, but … you can’t criticize 780 without also acknowledging that we haven’t funded the other piece of that.”
[ Read more: Five ways communities can use jails less ]
Red Rock provides treatment and other services for diversion programs, like drug and mental health courts, which provide an alternative to prison and connect participants with treatment and other resources to improve their stability. Red Rock also has medication-assisted treatment clinics that provide recovery tools like suboxone.
If funding were available from State Question 781, those programs could potentially be expanded to reach more people, Joseph said.
She pictures the people who have finished these diversion programs. What if they served time in jail or prison instead?
“That’s a lot of funds that the state is paying for them to be in there, and that’s a lot of extra room we would have to find (in jails and prisons) when they could go through a diversion program,” she said. “They can get assistance, treatment, get medicated and they can be stable.”
Dudley is serving a 10-year sentence on a robbery charge in the Dick Conner Correctional Center in Hominy. But Hughes imagines another setting for him, where Dudley could learn basic life skills.
“I wish there was some kind of place he could go for 18 months to two years that would have a structure to it and prepare him to live in this world with the disability that he has,” Hughes said.
When Hines leaves prison, Striplin hopes he’ll work for her. She has a business selling woopie pies, baked sandwiches filled with buttercream or other fillings.
“I need to teach him the importance of taking care of himself because I’m not going to be alive forever,” she said. “I want to teach him basically how to work, maintain and stay out of prison.”
Contact BigIfTrue.org editor Mollie Bryant at 405-990-0988 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter.
This article is part of a collaborative project with Verified News Network, a news organization in Tulsa. It was funded by the Oklahoma Media Center with support from the Native American Journalists Association.
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