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Health

More Than Half Of Oklahoma Inmates Struggle With Mental Illness

Each morning, Justus SkylerCobbs wakes up inside the Oklahoma Department of Corrections’ mental health unit, housed inside Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington, Oklahoma. Here, the 21-year-old receives regular mental health care. He says it is the best he has ever gotten. The reasons why he likes the care are simple.

"(They) sit down and listen to me. Actually let me talk. Tell them how I feel. They don’t pressure me into doing stuff or anything like that."

Justus is in prison for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, trespassing and malicious destruction of property, all nonviolent crimes, just like many of the other 16,500 Oklahoma inmates that struggle with mental illness.

Justus has long struggled with serious mental illness and developmental disabilities. He was raised by his grandmother, Debbie Chastain, after his mother abandoned him.

When Justus was a small child, Debbie thought his rowdiness was just him being a kid.

"He was a happy kid – ornery. Always found stuff to get into, but other than, I mean, doing weird, little boy stuff. At first, we always thought it was little boy stuff."

But at age 4, Justus was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. He was kicked out of five day care centers for his aggressive, disruptive behavior.

Once he got old enough to go to school, Justus was punished more than he was helped.

When he was 9, Justus was supposed to be on an individualized education program, a plan outlining the special education that Justus needed. But for a year, his school forgot about it, and in the meantime, Justus was repeatedly punished, sometimes suspended. Debbie tried taking Justus to counseling, but none of it seemed effective.

"They just kept putting him on different medications and I said ‘Can’t we do something other than this?’ ‘Well, we have to try each med to see which one is going to work.’"

The older Justus got, the more serious his behavior became. He started lying and stealing from his grandparents.

"His behavior got very bad at 12, 13 years old, just not really so much, like he liked to take things out of my room, out of my jewelry box, then it got from jewelry to my car."

Debbie became more and more concerned about what Justus would do next. In 2010, when Justus was 15, he stole her car for the second time. The McCurtain County sheriff’s department asked her if she wanted to press charges, and she said yes. She worried he would steal someone else’s car, or that he might end up hurting someone. She felt like she was out of options.

So, Justus entered the juvenile system. This was the end of Justus’s life at home with his family.

Debbie remembers visiting Justus at one of the many detention centers where he was held.

"That other juvenile detention center, it was like a prison. There you actually went behind all the doors that slammed behind you, to visit him there. Of course, this one you do too, but I guess I’m used to it now, I don’t know, but the first time, it was really horrible, broke my heart."

 

Debbie Chastain holds her the hand of her grandson Justus Sklyer Cobbs at the Joseph Harp Correctional Center, Saturday, March 12, 2016, in Lexington, Okla.
Credit Sarah Phipps / The Oklahoman
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The Oklahoman
Debbie Chastain holds her the hand of her grandson Justus Sklyer Cobbs at the Joseph Harp Correctional Center, Saturday, March 12, 2016, in Lexington, Okla.

While in the juvenile system, Justus started cutting himself, banging his head against walls and punching floors. He started swallowing buttons, nuts and bolts, and pieces of light bulbs. His mental health deteriorated, and he was hospitalized at least three times at psychiatric facilities.

And he tried repeatedly to escape.

When Justus was 18, he was transferred from the juvenile system to the Robert M. Greer Center in Enid. It’s a 52-bed inpatient facility for adults with developmental disabilities and mental illnesses.

The workers at the Greer Center made a comprehensive plan for how they wanted to help Justus: they would help him learn how to control his anger and teach him how to live on his own.

But after five months at the Greer Center, Justus escaped. And while he was out, he attempted to steal two cars from a local business, and he got on a train, telling law enforcement officers that he thought about trying to steal it.

At the Garfield County courthouse, the judge and assistant district attorney on Justus’s case tried to keep him out of prison. They sent him to a Department of Corrections’ diversion program, but Justus ended up harming himself. They tried sending him to an assisted living facility for adults with mental illnesses. He hurt himself there, too. After multiple attempts to help him, they were left with only one option: prison.

He’s expected to be released in about eight months. Currently, there is no plan for where he will go.

"There’s no place that’ll take him. And I’m obviously not meant to do it. I just don’t know."

 
Generally, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections gives inmates being released $50 and a bus ticket. Almost half of the inmates with mental illnesses who are released come back to prison within three years.

Jaclyn Cosgrove is a health reporter at The Oklahoman, and this year she is one of six Carter Center mental health journalism fellows in the United States. Read her most recent print story here.

Jaclyn will host a discussion about how mental health and Oklahoma’s prison system collide Wednesday evening at 6:30 p.m. at District House in Oklahoma City.

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