Two new pods at the Tulsa jail will more than double the facility’s capacity to house inmates suffering from mental illness. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

When two new Tulsa jail pods designed for mentally ill inmates open up later this year, it will more than double the amount of beds in the facility specifically set aside to house inmates suffering from mental health issues.

Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office officials on Thursday gave the media a final look at new taxpayer-funded jail pods before inmates begin to move in later this year.

The four pods – two of which will house mentally ill inmates, the other two of which are designated as general population pods – were recently completed as part of a 2014 tax initiative that at the time was partly meant to alleviate overpopulation concerns.

But as the pods are set to open, the regular jail population is at a more manageable level. That means it’s somewhat up in the air what the use of the two general population pods will be. Sheriff Vic Regalado said during a Thursday press conference that inmates may be moved from their current pods to the new general population pods so that maintenance can be performed on parts of the 18-year-old jail.

“They won’t go unused, that’s for sure,” Regalado told reporters.

The county currently faces about a dozen federal civil rights lawsuits related to deaths and injuries of prisoners in the jail, possibly costing taxpayers millions in increased property taxes to resolve. Perhaps the most prominent case is a lawsuit filed on behalf of Elliot Williams, an inmate who died in his cell after more than 50 hours without food, water or medical care. Williams, who had a history of mental illness, suffered a broken neck in the jail and was paralyzed.

Jail’s watchdog submitted few reports while inmates were injured, died

As for the mental health pods, those are expected to be filled quickly, chief deputy Michelle Robinette said. Robinette, who briefly served as acting sheriff prior to Regalado taking off, helped oversee the development of the four new pods.

“The whole idea is to provide a foundation so if and when they leave (the jail) they have a solid foundation to continue to get mental health aid,” Regalado said.

It’s hard to nail down exactly how many of the nearly 2,000 inmates in the Tulsa Jail (a count on Thursday showed 1,911) are afflicted with mental health issues, Robinette said, though national statistics indicate about one-third of all inmates are on psychotropic medication.

And those inmates suffer from varying levels of illness, meaning not everyone on medication needs the around-the-clock eye that those in a mental health pod receive.

But some do, and Robinette said the new pods will improve things for those inmates.


Chief Deputy Michelle Robinette gives the media a tour of the “level 2” wing of a new jail pod used to house mentally ill inmates. Level 2 inmates are not considered suicidal or homicidal but cannot function in a group environment. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Right now the housing of the mentally ill in the Tulsa jail is a game of musical chairs. Women and juvenile females suffering from mental health issues severe enough to keep them from general population generally stay in the jail’s medical area, as there aren’t enough of those inmates to fill out their own jail wing.

“But to do that, you’re taking medical beds away from those who need medical attention,” Robinette said. “So having to jockey all these people around to make sure you have the best fit put us in a very difficult position.”

There are currently just four cells for suicidal inmates. Mentally ill males deemed unfit for general population are held in segregation cells, areas of the jail generally set aside for the most dangerous offenders.

Robinette said about 20 mentally ill male inmates currently reside in those segregation cells. But those are typically inmates who are most at risk, meaning there are some mentally ill inmates who reside in general population pods out of sheer necessity.

When the two new pods open, space for mentally ill inmates will more than double. The sheriff’s office designed a four-tier program for inmates suffering from mental illness, and designed the two pods around that concept. One pod, which resembles a standard general population cell and has bunk beds, no cells, and a large recreation area, is set aside for “level 4 inmates.” That designation is set aside for inmates who are not considered a threat to themselves or others, have shown a willingness to stay on their medication, and are nearly ready to transition to a regular general population pod.

There’s room for “about 72-80” level 4 inmates in the new pod, Robinette said, depending on how the bunks are set up.

The other pod is designed for “level 1 through level 3” inmates. Level 1 inmates are considered suicidal, homicidal, or both. The six new cells for level 1 inmates are in the back of the pod, and are watched by a detention officer at all times, Regalado said. Additionally, a registered nurse will be there at all times.

Level 2 inmates, those who are not suicidal or homicidal but are still not able to function in a group setting, will be housed in 10 single-bed cells in the pod. Those cells all sit behind a glass “smell and soundproof” wall in order to keep them from disrupting the rest of the pod, Robinette said.

Level 3 inmates will fill 12 single-bed cells on the other side of the pod. Those inmates will be allowed freer movement within the recreation area of the pod, though it will be a more limited form of access when compared to the free movement allowed to level 4 inmates.

‘Something has to be done’
Awareness of treatment and housing of mentally ill inmates has grown nationally in recent years, as the public and mental health professionals have argued against jails becoming defacto treatment centers. But Robinette, who has overseen the jail for years, said that limited in-patient treatment options in Oklahoma leave those inmates, and jail officials, with little choice.

“We are left to deal with it,” she said. “So we have to do as good a job as possible.”


Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado discusses the construction of new Tulsa Jail pods with the media. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Robinette said the jail is partnering with diversionary programs like Outside Inside Collaboration for Justice, and the Stepping Up Initiative, but she knows that the beds in the two new pods will fill up quickly.

“We do the best that we can do as a jail, and I will stack this jail against any other jail in the country,” she said.

“A lot of the communities, a lot of people (are like)’ if it doesn’t touch me, I don’t understand it, I don’t want to understand it.’ You either care or you don’t, and if you don’t, then you haven’t been affected by it. If you do, then you’ve been affected by it, you know what it means, and you know something has to be done.”

Statement from Mental Health Association of Oklahoma
“Mental Health Association Oklahoma applauds the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office for building specialized mental health pods at the David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center. The Sheriff’s Office has gone to great lengths to observe high-quality specialized pods across the country in order to construct these mental health pods. Soon, they will provide a safer and more secure therapeutic environment within the jail for Oklahomans impacted by severe mental illness.

“Beyond simply building the pods, we are thrilled the Sheriff’s Office will provide detention officers with complete specialized mental health training. This training will be critical in helping de-escalate situations that could be harmful to both the person who is incarcerated and the detention officer.

“Mental Health Association Oklahoma also applauds the Sheriff’s Office for playing a key role in a significant community-wide effort to divert non-violent offenders out of incarceration and into treatment. These stakeholders represent diverse fields ranging from healthcare, social service, criminal justice, first responders, business leaders, and others across Tulsa. They are working to save taxpayers money as they help people who have pending non-violent charges find their path to recovery – not jail and prison cells — so they can become productive members of our community.”