In his 2007 book “Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness,” author Pete Earley chronicled a major shift in our country to arrest the mentally ill.

Instead of treating patients in mental institutions, our prisons mutated into asylums.

“In 1955, some 560,000 Americans were being treated in state hospitals for mental problems,” wrote Earley, a Phillips University grad and former Enid News & Eagle reporter. “Between 1955 and 2000, our nation’s population increased from 166 million to 276 million. If you took the patient-per-capita ratio that existed in 1955 and extrapolated it out based on the new population, you’d expect to find 930,000 patients in state mental hospitals.”

This situation hasn’t improved in the last decade.

On Tuesday, Oklahoma prison officials warned taxpayers they can expect the state correction’s tab to increase by more than $1 billion over the next decade if policymakers don’t implement new measures aimed at reducing its burgeoning prison population.

When Joe Allbaugh assumed the position as Department of Corrections chief a year ago, he said he felt like he inherited the doomed Titanic after striking an iceberg. Now it’s time to rearrange the deck chairs on Oklahoma’s ticking time bomb of a prison system.

At the state Capitol, high-paid lobbyists don’t advocate much for the mentally ill.

And saying you’re tough on crime will only work if you’re willing to put your money where your mouth is.  Increasing incarceration costs will likely come at the expense of other core services.

Meanwhile, funding has dried up for inmate substance abuse and mental health treatment programs. 

If Oklahoma loses control of its prisons — as it did in the 1970s — legislators will face a funding mandate and won’t have the latitude to set priorities and find local solutions. Then the state will lose control over corrections spending.

When will the Legislature learn that mental illness and corrections are interrelated?

 

- The Enid News and Eagle 

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