OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – The State Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse is at the center of a new lawsuit, claiming they aren’t giving inmates access to mental health resources in a timely fashion.

The class action lawsuit involves plaintiffs from Tulsa, Comanche and Oklahoma Counties who suffer from severe mental illness.

While previously documented by stakeholders in a 2022 Oklahoma House of Representatives interim study, that crisis is laid out in a nearly 40 page class action complaint filed on March first against the Commissioner of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and the Executive Director of the Oklahoma Forensic Center.

It pinpoints a broken system aimed at restoring mental health competency for anyone unfit to stand trial.

“This is a crisis. And it’s not just a crisis for the defendants. It’s a crisis for all of our county jails. It’s difficult right now for them to find folks to work in the county jail, but it’s compounded when they have to deal with mentally ill people . . . when their behaviors escalate. [Jail employees] are not trained, they don’t have the knowledge to deal with the types of behaviors they’re seeing.”

Custer County Special District Judge Donna Dirickson at an October 2022 Oklahoma House of Representatives interim study committee meeting

While the lawsuit states that most people found intially incompetent can be restored, it goes on to detail a “horrifying legal purgatory” where plaintiffs are “caged in county jails” that are not designed for therapeutic care.

Instead, the plaintiffs are allegedly languishing for months or more before receiving treatment, including one plaintiff from Oklahoma County who was arrested for breaking into an apartment and stealing a guitar.

He reportedly has a documented history of delusions, paranoia and a psychotic disorder.

As of the filing of this complaint, he’s been held in the Oklahoma County jail for more than 86 days.

In a statement Sunday to KFOR, the department while it has not completed their review of the lawsuit, it does not “agree with its premise”:

We have not completed our review of the lawsuit, however, we disagree with its premise.  The department has worked diligently to begin providing competency restoration services in the jail setting.  This means that the individuals 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.  Most often this means prescribing medication to treat the individual’s mental illness.  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.  The department has also explored options to reduce the number of persons 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. 

Jeff Dismukes. Chief Public Information Officer, Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services

The class action lawsuit alleges that the “number of existing Class members fluctuates” but the class members is “believed to be in excess of 100 individuals”.