Joy Sharp awoke shortly after 1:30 a.m. one night in September 2020 as her 24-year-old daughter broke into her house, screaming angry accusations.
Grace Franklin heard voices and had delusional thoughts. She had spent most of the past few weeks in a near catatonic state, staring at the walls of Sharp’s house in rural Stephens County or sitting in the bathtub. Franklin has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, but like many people with the disease, she refused treatment because she didn’t believe she was sick.
Sharp called 911 as Franklin tried to force her way into her mother’s locked bedroom. She hoped law enforcement would finally help Franklin get the mental health services she needed.
Franklin, who has no prior criminal record, would instead spend most of the next six months locked inside the Stephens County jail with her case in legal limbo, unable to understand the charge against her or assist an attorney with her defense. She joined a long waiting list of mentally ill people held in jails across Oklahoma found incompetent to stand trial. Franklin was forced to wait for a bed to open up at the Oklahoma Forensic Center in Vinita, a state hospital where mentally ill people deemed too sick to participate in legal proceedings receive court-ordered treatment — but only until they are well enough to face criminal prosecution or the state can’t legally hold them any longer.
In March, there were 55 men on the Forensic Center’s waiting list and 29 women. Some had been waiting for as long as six months for a bed to open up. Nearly all were waiting for treatment to have their competency restored in criminal cases. Their charges ranged from violent felonies including assault, arson and sexual battery to misdemeanors including outraging public decency, resisting a police officer and drug possession.
The Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, which runs the Forensic Center, declined to release the names of people waiting for competency treatment at Vinita or detailed information about their criminal cases, citing patient privacy laws and some court records that had been sealed by county judges. Like Franklin, 13 men and women on the waiting list in March faced only misdemeanor charges.
In response to the growing demand, the Forensic Center is adding more beds. The state Legislature has also appropriated more funding for crisis services for the mentally ill in the coming year.
But mental health advocates say Oklahoma needs more treatment options and laws that make it easier to have a person committed to a psychiatric facility before landing in jail.
Oklahoma consistently ranks among the worst states for access to mental health treatment and prevalence of mental illness. Between 62 percent and 94 percent of Oklahomans in need of mental health treatment do not receive the services they need, according to the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. Jails have become one of Oklahoma’s largest de facto mental health providers.
Franklin was barefoot and dressed in a nightgown when Stephens County sheriff’s deputies arrested her in the front yard of Sharp’s home. The deputies could have taken Franklin to a hospital for a mental health evaluation to see if she met the criteria to be held in emergency detention for up to five days. But Franklin shouted at one of the deputies and resisted as the officers tried to place her in hand restraints and lead her to a patrol car, according to a sheriff’s office report.
A family member reported that Franklin had smoked marijuana that night, so the deputies arrested her and took her to jail. The Stephens County district attorney’s office charged Franklin with public intoxication, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of six months in jail.
The state can hold criminal defendants deemed too mentally ill to stand trial for the maximum sentence for the crime they are charged with, or up to two years in order to restore their competency.
Courts can dismiss criminal charges for people with mental illness like Franklin and divert them into treatment in the community, but typically only if prosecutors are willing to extend leniency, state mental health officials told The Frontier.
Durand Crosby, chief operating officer of the Oklahoma State Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, said the agency advised the Stephens County district attorney’s office to drop Franklin’s criminal case and send her to treatment or at least release her on bail.
“The local community mental health center can still treat this person, she doesn’t have to languish in jail,” he said.
But Stephens County District Attorney Jason Hicks said that his office did not support releasing Franklin into the community because she allegedly kicked the sheriff’s deputy during her arrest and also later grabbed and scratched a detention officer at the jail.
“If we let someone out of jail and dismiss a case knowing that somebody needs treatment, and they go out and injure somebody or kill somebody, the liability for everybody involved in that is going to end up being pretty high,” Hicks said. “And I won’t ever agree to that.”
Jails present health and safety risks for the mentally ill
In jail, people with severe mental illness are more vulnerable to escalating health problems from inadequate medication, neglect and lack of self-care, said Lisa Dailey, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, a Virginia-based nonprofit that promotes mental health law reform.
In April, 65-year old Christa Sullivan died at the Oklahoma County Detention Center while waiting for a bed to open up at Vinita to restore her competency. Sullivan had been in the jail’s custody for 11 months after allegedly stabbing her husband and had been found incompetent to stand trial in March.
The cause of Sullivan’s death is still under investigation, but jail officials said she “had experienced extreme aversion to self-care and suicidal ideations, as well as a number of physical incidents causing hospitalization,” according to a statement the detention center released in April.
People with severe mental illness are also more prone to violent altercations with jail staff after failing to comply with demands, which can put their lives in jeopardy, Dailey said.
“They won’t do what you’re expecting them to do, because they may have a very limited understanding of where they even are,” she said. “It’s a horrible combination — being in a psychiatric crisis and to be incarcerated.”
At the Stephens County jail, Franklin was sometimes held in isolation and had no communication with her family for months.
In October 2020, jailers strapped Franklin in a restraint chair after she refused to obey their commands and scratched a detention officer’s hands and arms during a struggle, according to a jail incident report.
Without family support, Sharp believes her daughter’s mental health further deteriorated inside the jail.
“There’s no one to help. There’s no sympathy, because they’re only viewed as criminals,” she said.
Stephens County officials cancelled in-person visitations at the jail because of the coronavirus pandemic. Sharp says she deposited money to Franklin’s jail account and sent her a letter listing the phone numbers of family members, but she believes Franklin was either unable or unwilling to call because she was in a state of psychosis.
Stephens County Undersheriff Bobby Bowen said that although the pandemic forced the jail to curtail visits, prisoners have access to tablets and can communicate with family members via text, video chat or phone calls. The county also provides indigent prisoners with stamps and writing supplies to send letters. Prisoners are typically only held in solitary confinement if they pose a safety risk or for medical reasons, he said.
The length of Franklin’s stay at the jail waiting for a bed to open up at Vinita is not unusual, Bowen said.
“We have a list of people that are just here waiting,” he said.
When family members called the jail, staff would only say whether Franklin was still in custody.
Sharp wrote letters and called state and federal lawmakers and used social media to complain to the state mental health department—anything to try to speed up the process of getting Franklin help.
Franklin’s mother and grandmother say they also tried to call her court-appointed attorney for help, but he didn’t respond until March.
The attorney, Ron Williams, said he handles as many as 200 to 300 cases a year for indigent clients through a contract with the state. He declined to speak specifically about Franklin’s case but said he doesn’t have time to return calls from people with loved ones in jail.
“If I talked to every family member, I’d be overrun,” he said.
There’s a waiting list for treatment
A Stephens County judge initially ruled Franklin incompetent to stand trial in December, but she would have to wait in jail for almost another four months for a bed to open at the Forensic Center.
The waiting list has long been a problem for the Forensic Center. In 2015, an Oklahoma County district court judge threatened to hold then-state Mental Health Commissioner Terri White in contempt of court after one defendant waited six months for treatment in Vinita.
Stalled court proceedings and other delays stemming from the coronavirus pandemic over the past year have further exacerbated the problem. There’s also fewer beds free at the Forensic Center as Oklahoma courts have found more defendants not guilty by reason of insanity in recent years as society has become more aware of mental health issues, Crosby said.
Unlike people found incompetent to stand trial, criminal defendants found not guilty by reason of insanity can spend decades at the Forensic Center and may only be released by court order if it is determined they are no longer dangerous. People found not guilty by reason of insanity were mentally disturbed when they committed a crime and did not understand the nature or consequences of their actions. Many committed violent offenses including homicide. The Forensic Center has to provide nursing care for some elderly residents found not guilty by reason of insanity, because there are few assisting living homes willing to take clients from the center, said Crystal Hernandez, executive director of the Forensic Center.
The Forensic Center is a tidy, modern 200-bed facility on a country road that sits in the shadow of the abandoned Eastern State Hospital, a sprawling complex of crumbling red brick buildings first established by the Oklahoma Legislature in 1909 to treat the state’s mentally ill.
Patients at the Forensic Center receive medication and therapy. There’s a concession stand that serves popcorn once a week, a recreation room where patients play board games and a library stocked with donated books. The Forensic Center is also equipped with a mock courtroom, with a judge bench, witness stand and gallery. Staff use the room to practice proper courtroom decorum and to test whether patients are cognizant enough to participate in real legal proceedings.
But the goal isn’t to treat patients until they are well.
The men and women who come to the Forensic Center to have their competency restored are treated only until they are well enough to understand the criminal charges against them and able to assist their attorney in their defense.
The average stay for people found incompetent to stand trial at Vinita is 90 days, but the duration of treatment can vary depending on how ill a patient is when they arrive.
The Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services is getting ready to add 16 beds to the Forensic Center in July to help to shorten the waiting list.
The center is converting some existing rooms into more beds for patients to keep up with demand. It’s been a struggle just to find adequate space for the expansion, Hernandez said.
“We serve the entire state and we’re not comparatively very big,” Hernandez said.
State mental health officials also hope to help more people achieve competency faster with a pilot program to administer antipsychotic medication to patients at county jails. The goal is to stabilize patients before they arrive at the Forensic Center making their stay shorter, Crosby said.
Need for help before a crisis
Mental health advocates say more options for treatment could help people with severe mental illness before they become involved in the criminal justice system.
Marilyn Welton’s 52-year-old son has been arrested dozens of times and has been in and out of jail over the past 30 years while battling mental illness. He’s also logged three trips to the Forensic Center during that time.
Jeff Welton was transferred to the Forensic Center again in March after a 10-month stay at the Pittsburg County jail. Because of coronavirus restrictions, Marilyn Welton was only allowed to visit her son twice while he was at the jail—once to help calm him when he was in an agitated state and a second time to let him know his father had died.
“The jails are the long term hospitals now for people with diagnosed mental illness,” she said.
The Welton family is launching a new nonprofit, WJW Mental Health Legal Fund, to provide advocacy and legal support for people with severe mental mental illness.
After talking with members of the Welton family, Sen. Joe Newhouse, R-Tulsa, introduced a bill in the Oklahoma Legislature in 2019 to make it easier for families to obtain a civil court order to have their mentally ill loved ones committed to treatment before they become involved with the criminal justice system.
The measure passed out of committee but never advanced to a vote on the Senate floor.
Current state law only allows for families to seek involuntary commitment when a person poses an immediate threat to themselves or others. Newhouse’s bill would lower that standard, allowing more people to receive treatment before a mental health crisis, which can often lead to arrest and jail.
“These are individuals that just need some help,” he said.
Oklahoma lawmakers enacted the Labor Commissioner Mark Costello Act in 2016 that allows families to ask a judge to order people with mental illness to receive treatment on an outpatient basis in some circumstances.
The law was named in honor of the former head of the Oklahoma Department of Labor, who died after his mentally ill adult son, Christian Costello, stabbed him in 2015.
But the assisted outpatient treatment programs the bill authorized have never been fully funded or implemented in Oklahoma. The Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services asked the Legislature for $12.6 million for assisted outpatient treatment programs under the Mark Costello Act in 2020, but lawmakers did not approve the funding amid budget cuts due to the coronavirus pandemic and lower tax revenues.
State lawmakers did approve a new budget in May that includes additional funding for crisis intervention programs for law enforcement and more treatment options in Oklahoma. The new funding includes $7.5 million to increase the number of mental health crisis and urgent care beds in the state and $3 million for mobile crisis units to respond to mental health calls.
Billed for her stay in jail
A bed at the Forensic Center finally opened up for Franklin in March. After treatment with
antipsychotic medication, Franklin’s mental state improved to where she could begin calling Sharp on the phone.
Franklin cried during their first phone conversation. She told her mother that she hadn’t called for all those months in jail because she believed her family was dead.
The Stephens County Sheriff’s Office filed a motion in March to bill Franklin more than $5,500 for the 171 days she spent in jail—$32.25 a day.
Sharp started to cry when she looked up Franklin’s court case online and saw the bill.
“It’s cruel and unusual — it’s outrageous,” she said.
With treatment, Franklin’s condition gradually improved. She began reading the Harry Potter book series and called family members regularly from Vinita.
Franklin’s attorney asked the court to dismiss the public intoxication charge against her, arguing that the state has no jurisdiction to prosecute her because she is a member of the Choctaw Nation.
Franklin’s case and all of the costs were dismissed on June 22 and she was transported back to the Stephens County jail, where Sharp picked her up and took her back to the family farm.
Today, Franklin is taking medication and doing well. She was excited to go to Walmart and shop for her favorite foods, Sharp said.
Sharp is angry about the amount of time her daughter spent time in jail waiting for treatment. Franklin could have been stabilized with medication much faster if she would have gone directly to treatment instead of spending six months in jail, she said.
“Mentally ill people have rights,” Sharp said. “She shouldn’t have been in jail. She should have been getting help. Instead of it being a nine month ordeal, it would have been a three month ordeal.”