More Than Half of Oklahoma Inmates Struggle With Mental Illness

Oklahoma’s prisons have become the new psychiatric hospitals. Fifty-seven percent of Oklahoma inmates struggle with mental illness. Oklahoman reporter Jaclyn Cosgrove takes us to meet one of them.

Each morning, Justus Skyler Cobbs 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."

Read the rest of the story and listen to the report.

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