The state Senate recently approved a bill that would establish a task force to study state agency roles and responsibilities to help ensure that mentally ill women who have been incarcerated are successfully reintegrated into society.
Sen. Constance N. Johnson, author of Senate Bill 1959, explained that with Oklahoma leading the nation in the incarceration of women, the state must begin treating the cause rather than the symptoms.
“In order for us to correct this problem, we have to look at ways to reduce recidivism, to treat the causes that ultimately lead to incarceration and make sure our agencies are working to ensure that these women have every opportunity to lead productive lives,” said Johnson, D-Oklahoma City. “It’s been said that our prisons are the state’s largest mental hospitals, but unfortunately the kind of treatment needed in these facilities is largely inadequate. The resulting cycle of recidivism has cost our state dearly.”
Johnson said the task force would be led by the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services along with the Department of Corrections. The two agencies will work together with the 15-member task force to review current initiatives and plan future efforts to address the needs of mentally ill women who have been incarcerated.
According to statistics from the Department of Corrections, Oklahoma’s incarceration rate ranks first nationally for females and fourth for males. Of the 25,120 prisoners currently in Oklahoma correctional facilities, 2,587 are women. Of those women, 60 percent suffer from some form of mental illness.
“This issue is about the high costs of incarceration to our state and its cost to our families and communities,” Johnson said. “If we don’t give women the treatment and tools necessary to successfully re-enter society, this problem will not fix itself. I’m confident this task force can develop a plan that is fair to all and that can make a difference in the lives of the many women and families who aren’t getting the help they so desperately need and deserve.”
In addition to the director of the Department of Corrections and the Commissioner of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, task force members will include four members of the Legislature; representatives from The Department of Rehabilitation Services; the Department of Human Services; the Oklahoma Health Care Authority and a representative from Workforce Oklahoma. A woman who suffers from mental illness and has been incarcerated will also be appointed to the task force. If approved by the Legislature, the task force will hold its first meeting on or before Sept. 1, 2008.
“This bill is very much a collaborative effort between the Legislature, state agencies, mental health advocacy groups and mental health consumers,” Johnson added. “We chose to address this targeted group of mentally ill women with a goal of developing a model that can be applied to the larger community of people with mental illness who are presently housed in correctional facilities.”
Rita Cooksey, Administrative Specialist for Female Offender Management with the Department of Corrections said there is a great need for the state to begin addressing this issue with a comprehensive plan.
“All of our bed space has been taken and a large percentage of these women have been diagnosed with some form of mental illness,” she said. “The pathways to incarceration with men and women are different and it’s often some form of trauma or mental illness that leads women to correctional facilities. Great strides have been taken toward addressing the issue but it’s time for our state to take a larger leap with this collaborative effort and we’re very excited about it.”
Johnson said the task force could put Oklahoma at the national forefront in addressing issues related to mental illness and incarceration.
“On the horizon, Oklahoma stands to be on the cutting edge for consideration when initiatives such as the Second Chance Act, scheduled to be signed soon by the President, are implemented,” Johnson said. “This task force is definitely a move in the right direction for our state.”
The measure now advances to the House for consideration.