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County jail not safe for mental health court participants, judge says

Judge Geary Walke works in the mental health court. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman]
Judge Geary Walke works in the mental health court. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman]

Oklahoma County’s mental health court will no longer keep participants in custody at the county jail while they await mental health treatment, a special judge said.

“Unfortunately, our jail is not the sort of place that we can consider a safe place for our people,” said Special Judge Geary Walke, who oversees the county’s mental health court.

In the past, mental health court participants who needed inpatient care often waited in the jail for weeks or months while officials searched for a treatment facility that could take them. Last month, inmate Krysten Mischelle Gonzalez, 29, died in her cell at the county jail. The state medical examiner’s office has not released an official cause of death, but jail officials say Gonzalez hanged herself.

Gonzalez had been jailed after she failed to appear in mental health court. For the

three months before her death, Gonzalez waited in the jail while the Oklahoma County public defender’s office searched for a mental health treatment facility that could take her.

Gonzalez had been admitted into the county’s mental health court program in November 2017 after being charged twice with felony possession of methamphetamine and once with misdemeanor breaking and entering. A U.S. Army veteran, Gonzalez wrote in court papers that she had been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.

The change represents a major shift in the way the county mental health court operates, Walke said.

In the past, the mental health court often jailed participants who failed to meet court requirements while the court tried to get them into mental health treatment. Under the new plan, participants are released on own-recognizance bonds while they await treatment.

Court officials keep track of them through other means like GPS monitoring devices and required daily check-ins at the NorthCare Day Reporting Center.

That’s a model the Oklahoma County drug court has used for some time.

But Walke said participants in his court have issues that are different from those in drug court.

While most mental health court participants are also dealing with addiction issues, Walke said they’re also struggling with mental health problems and they’re more likely to be homeless. Holding those participants in the jail meant officials could make sure they were complying with mental health court requirements and keep them from absconding while officials worked to get them into treatment.

Although he didn’t cite Gonzalez’s case specifically, Walke said the jail is no longer a safe option for holding those participants.

Mark Opgrande, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, agreed that a maximum-security jail cell often isn’t the most appropriate place to house nonviolent inmates who are seeking treatment. Having fewer inmates in the jail for lengthy stays also reduces jail overcrowding, he said.

The plan is a part of a larger conversation about how best to deal with inmates who need treatment for addiction or mental health disorders.

Bob Ravitz, the county’s chief public defender, said he has been working with representatives from the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and the Oklahoma County district attorney’s office to find solutions to that problem that don’t include sending people to jail.

When mental health patients are sent to the county jail, their medications are often delayed, he said. Making sure participants take their medications regularly is an important goal of mental health court, so those delays are counterproductive.

Ultimately, Ravitz said, the county’s efforts are hampered by the lack of treatment options for people in drug and mental health courts.

“Obviously we all know that there is a shortage of beds in the state for substance abuse,” Ravitz said. “So you have to work around it.”

Silas Allen

Silas Allen is a news reporter for The Oklahoman. He is a Missouri native and a 2008 graduate of the University of Missouri. Read more ›