Michelle Robinette said in a 2013 deposition that the Tulsa jail detention staff she supervised “lacked human decency to take care of another human being” in the way they treated Elliott Williams.
But during the civil trial on Williams’ 2011 death earlier this month, Robinette, a former Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy, said: “I don’t believe my officers essentially did anything wrong. We did what we were required to do.”
Williams, 37, died from complications of a broken neck and showed signs dehydration, a medical examiner’s report states. He was arrested by Owasso police after suffering a mental breakdown.
On Monday, a jury found the Sheriff’s Office was deliberately indifferent to Williams’ civil rights and awarded his family $10 million and a $250,000 punishment against former Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz in his individual capacity.
The county faces about a dozen federal civil rights lawsuits related to deaths and injuries of inmates in the jail, which could possibly cost taxpayers millions in increased property taxes to resolve.
Sheriff’s Office employees who were supervising Tulsa’s jail while inmates with mental illnesses died are now being charged with overseeing their care, as the jail’s new mental health pods open in mid-April.
Robinette oversaw the jail for most of the last decade — when almost 20 inmates died. She was recently promoted to a newly-created civilian job supervising mental health services for inmates in the jail’s mental health pods.
A Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman declined The Frontier’s request to interview Robinette.
Across the U.S., as mental health funding dissipates, jails are becoming the de facto location for housing people with mental illnesses. National statistics show almost 15 percent of men and 30 percent of women booked into jail have a serious mental health condition.
Joshua Aiken, a policy fellow with the Prison Policy Initiative, said given Tulsa jail’s history, he questions the decision to have the same officials who oversaw the jail’s operations while mentally ill inmates died or were injured now administering mental health care.
“Sounds like what’s happening now is putting more resources into the county and the sheriff’s hands, when they’re the ones being sued and also they’re the ones who have let people fall behind bars in their facilities, it doesn’t feel like that makes a whole lot of sense for those to be the people we’re kind of entrusting more mental health resources with.”
However, some mental health advocates say the Sheriff’s Office has come a long way.
‘They’re working with us’
About five years ago, Michael Brose said he was called into Glanz’s office and was met with a collection of files lying on the former sheriff’s desk.
Glanz told him the files documented people who died in the jail, said Brose, the CEO of Mental Health Association Oklahoma.
“I’m sure one of them was Elliott Williams,” Brose said in an interview with The Frontier.
Brose said Glanz explained the jail’s mental health care system was failing. The facility wasn’t equipped to treat the mentally ill people coming into its custody.
Mentally ill people kept being put in the jail, but it didn’t have the facilities to care for them, Glanz said. He recently spoke to The Frontier days after the verdict against him.
“They should have been taken to a mental health facility,” he said. “They don’t belong in jail.”
There would be major lawsuits, Brose said he was told. Glanz asked Brose to help him shore up the jail’s mental health care by assisting in the implementation of new mental health pods.
Brose said he would help and publicly support the sheriff under the condition the agency participate in diversion programs to keep mentally ill people out of jail and carefully select the detention officers working in the pods.
Brose’s first impression of jail staff?
“I was appalled at the people I was working with, how little they knew about mental health and mental illness,” he said.
But the jail staff has come a long way, Brose said, and Glanz followed through with their agreement.
“For all his troubles and woes, he lived up to that with me,” he said. “I think he needed to resign — it was a good decision in light of everything. But he had good intentions and listened to what I had to say.”
Glanz, Tulsa County’s longest-serving sheriff, was elected in 1988 and resigned in 2015 after he was indicted by a grand jury.
Glanz was involved in a scandal over a fatal shooting by his wealthy friend, Robert Bates, who was allowed to serve as a volunteer deputy. Bates was convicted of manslaughter in the shooting of Eric Harris in 2015 and was sentenced to four years in prison.
Glanz pleaded guilty to willful violation of the law related to collecting car allowance while driving a county vehicle and no contest to refusal to perform official duty after he withheld a report about Bates’ lack of training.
On Monday, a jury found Glanz was deliberately indifferent to Williams’ civil rights and he must pay $250,000 to his estate.
In an interview with The Frontier, Glanz questioned how a jury could find him indifferent.
“They said I’m indifferent, but I’m the one who worked to get the pods,” he said. Discussion of the mental health pods wasn’t allowed into the trial.
Glanz said that all the evidence used in the trial was produced by the Sheriff’s Office, such as audits and reviews of the jail’s health care, as well as a video of Williams’ lying paralyzed over five days in a cell before he died. Glanz didn’t watch the video for more than a year after Williams died, he testified in the federal trial.
“But they found me indifferent. It’s nuts. … I guess I’ll just deal with it.” Glanz said.
Defense attorney Clark Brewster told The Frontier on Monday he was “100 percent sure” the decision would be reversed on appeal.
Brose said other mental health advocates and philanthropists in Tulsa were critical of him aiding the Sheriff’s Office, but the shared goal was to divert people with untreated mental illnesses and divert nonviolent offenders into treatment rather than jail.
“They’re working with us,” Brose said. “They don’t want those people in jail because they recognize it takes a lot of manpower and extra resources.”
Brose, along with Sheriff’s Office employees visited a jail in Florida to learn about how the facility was running its mental health pods, and staff embraced suggestions.
“The Florida people told us it’s not just about the physical plan, it’s about staffing,” he said.
Robinette told Brose she didn’t want to open the pods until they found the right detention officers and had them properly trained, Brose said.
Steve Baker, president of National Alliance on Mental Illness Tulsa (NAMI), said the jail’s mental health pods “are probably the most cutting edge in the country.”
“It’s a big, big step,” he said.
NAMI helped provide courses to the Sheriff’s Office, Baker said. The actual training was provided by the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
Detention officers are completing three-day courses in Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training. The program is designed to unite officers, mental health providers, hospitals, and people with mental illnesses along with their families.
Officers learned to communicate and de-escalate situations involving mentally ill inmates, said Baker, who observed a CIT course in the jail.
“Something I learned is detention officers do a thankless job. … These guys are pretty dedicated and want to do this,” he said. “They have a heart for this and desire to work with the mentally ill in jail. It’s not everyone’s common desire.”
The new pods open April 15.
The goal is to combine several community programs to divert people with mental illnesses away from the jail, but if they do end up there, they will be better served than they were prior to the new pods, Brose said.
‘Those people have failed’
During a community forum in February, Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado, Robinette and representatives from Turn Key Health (the jail’s medical provider) said they were committed to providing the best medical and mental health care possible.
They showed pictures of the new mental health pods, flooded with natural light. The jail will have a 1-800 phone line for relatives to report concerns about medical care, Robinette said.
During a media tour of the pods in January, Robinette said the jail is partnering with diversionary programs such as Outside Inside Collaboration for Justice and the Stepping Up Initiative.
“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.”
When the pods open, it will more than double the number of beds set aside specifically for mentally ill inmates.
The new pods will be for only male inmates, freeing up room in the jail’s medical unit for women, said TCSO spokesman Justin Green. The medical unit has often been used to house mentally ill inmates.
Dan Smolen, the attorney who represented Williams’ estate, said the new mental health pods are nothing more than additional jail cells.
“The amount of jail cells we have is not the problem,” he said. “It’s the people we have overseeing the jail cells and people we have running the jail cells.
“…Those people have failed in their past obligations, and I think that there needs to be some serious overhaul, and substantive and immediate changes in the way they operate the Tulsa County jail and the way they supervise the medical delivery system.”
Smolen’s firm, Smolen, Smolen & Roytman, is also representing the estate of Lisa Salgado, Gregory Brown and Gwendolyn Young. They all died in Tulsa’s jail between October 2011 and February 2013. The cases are expected to go to trial later this year.
Robinette was in charge of the jail when Williams died.
In 2013, Robinette said during her deposition that Williams wasn’t properly fed or hydrated during his last days alive in Tulsa’s jail.
“He was given a styrofoam cup of water placed at his shoulder that he never drank that was kicked over by a doctor and never replaced,” her deposition states.
“And no time during that video did I see him go to them and eat any of the food out of them. None of my detention officers took the time to open the door to verify that he was eating or assist him any,” she said then.
During the 14th day of a civil trial in Tulsa’s federal court over Williams’ death in the jail — Robinette walked back that statement.
His treatment was not inhumane, she said.
“There were Styrofoam trays and a cup of water” in his cell, she told Smolen.
Robinette said during testimony that she was verbally counseled by then-Undersheriff Brian Edwards following Williams’ death.
“He believed there to be a lack of leadership, a lack of control and that I had dropped the ball” related to Williams, she testified.
The Frontier analyzed records from the state jail inspector, state medical examiner’s office and other resource that show since 2006, at least 30 people have died in Tulsa’s jail or shortly after being transported out of Tulsa’s jail.
It’s unlikely jail staff could have prevented all or even most of the deaths since 2006. Some inmates come into the county’s 1,700-bed jail with serious medical and mental health issues that are difficult to treat in a jail.
However, experts and medical records state that outcomes for at least 10 of those people could have changed with proper medical and mental health care. The number could be higher, as several inmate deaths resulted in claims or lawsuits quickly settled by the jail’s medical provider before detailed records were produced.
Among the inmates with mental health problems was Clinton Labor. Labor hanged himself in March 2010 after making a request in the jail’s medical request system stating, “need to talk.”
A mental health evaluation shows Labor, 27, had anxiety and trouble sleeping. An independent audit of the incident states there was a six-day wait between Labor’s request and the mental health visit.
The jail’s psychiatrist wasn’t informed of Labor’s suicide, states an inmate mortality review, which was filed with other records in the Williams case.
An auditor found his death might have been preventable.
Another inmate, Charles Jernegan, hanged himself in his cell in July 2009. He had a long history of mental illness and suicidal thoughts, according to a civil lawsuit brought by his estate.
In the eight months leading up to his death, Jernegan was detained at the jail three times. He warned jail staff he was suicidal but was ignored, the lawsuit states.
He made a written request to staff asking for help but never received any, the suit states. Two days later, he was found hanging in his cell and died the next day.
On Tuesday, the Sheriff’s Office told The Frontier its reviews of inmate deaths are exempt from the Open Records Act.
Last year tied with 2013 for the deadliest year in the jail since 2010. Four inmates died in the jail in 2016, including one death shortly before Regalado took office.
The latest inmate death in the jail occurred Feb. 2, when TCSO said inmate Thomas Willingham III “coded” after being placed on an EMSA gurney.
‘It can’t be a bad thing to have good outcomes’
With a shortage of state-funded beds for people with mental illnesses or substance abuse disorders, Brose said he fears the jail will become the go-to mental hospital for Tulsa County.
“The mental health care system is broken. Just broken,” Baker said. “And so they’re in the process of just trying to do jail diversion before you get there. The jail is the largest mental health provider in the state of Oklahoma.”
As funding for mental healthcare has dissipated across the country, jails are taking the place of mental health services.
“So … a trend we’re seeing pop up across the country is a trend of creating mental health jails, mental health pods within jails, different ways of shaping facilities,” Aiken said. “But at the end of the day, a lot of these people would be better served — there’s a lot of research that shows they would be better served in the community or better served receiving treatment elsewhere as opposed to being locked behind bars.”
Aiken said that ideally, people would be put into diversionary programs before they ever enter the jail.
Brose said with the jail’s partnership with diversionary programs, that’s what they hope for. But people with mental illnesses or substance abuse disorders are going to get into jail, and when they do, they will need specialized care.
Evidence and testimony that surfaced during the Williams’ trial have forced certain issues with the jail’s care of inmates into the public eye.
At the time of Williams’ death, jail staff had a lack of training, no mental health pods, lack of diversion programs and less tools to identify mentally ill inmates in booking, Brose said. Unfortunately, sometimes meaningful change requires some type of crisis or tragedy, he said.
The lawsuits forced transparency and exposure, Brose said.
“I think that it was very traumatic and painful for everyone that had to go to trial, but the outcome is out there for everyone to see and look at,” he said. “It can’t be a bad thing to have good outcomes.”