County jails are often used for more than punishing a person for a crime.
Many inmates will spend more time in jail waiting for a mental health evaluation compared to the time they would actually serve for the crime.
County jails are places people typically go when they break the law, but talk to anyone who operates one of the facilities, and they will tell you they are used for much more, including maternity wards, mental health hospitals and even nursing homes.
“We are the largest mental health facility in Oklahoma,” Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel said.
On any given day, the Oklahoma County jail will house between 350 and 400 inmates who have a mental illness, and those are only those who have been diagnosed.
“A lot of them rather than just laying here in jail should be seeing a psychiatrist or counselors on the outside, be on their meds with a day reporting center,” Whetsel said.
However, that program is limited in funding and openings. It has an impressive 80 percent success rate but can only take 60 people at a time.
“They’re staying on their meds and their meeting with their psych on a regular basis,” Whetsel said.
The rest end up in jail.
“We get people who are extremely healthy,” he said. “We get people who are dying from cancer.”
Many have pre-existing conditions that are paid for by taxpayers, and in one case delivered by a jailer when an inmate went into labor while in jail.
“Are we holding on to them or should they be back out on the street where they have access to narcotics again, and our jail is being used as a maternity ward to protect them?” Custer County Sheriff Bruce Peoples said.
However, sometimes, no matter what jailers do, they cannot protect the inmate from themselves. One Custer County inmate ate floor tiles and then swallowed so many pencils he had to be rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. The bill was about $50,000.
“We go, ‘There’s a deputy for a year,’” Peoples said.
It is part of operating expenses and part of a much bigger issue.
“So many of these mental illnesses can be treated with certain types of medications and special care that they need to be tended to in a facility where they can receive that kind of care,” Peoples said. “They don’t belong in the county jail.”