October 2009         

Reginald Wilkinson, Ed.D., Director (Ret.)

Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction

Reggie Wilkinson

When Reginald (Reggie) Wilkinson was working on his master’s degree in higher education administration, he aspired to be a university president.  He furthered his education by pursuing and receiving a doctorate degree in education.  In 1973, fresh out of school, Reggie got a job in prison administration at the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) and by 1991, he was named Director.   As to his dream of becoming a university president, Reggie said, “Running a prison is actually not that much different than running a university.  When they leave you, they have to be better prepared for life than when you got them.” 

Reggie’s parents grew up on small farms in Georgia, and raised their children with the same solid values and respect for others that had been the cornerstones of their families.  Mental illness was not a noticeable part of his family’s history.  “At that time people didn’t talk that much about mental illness.  Folks were not anxious to say if they had a mental health challenge because either they didn’t know it or they were fearful they would be ridiculed because of it,” Reggie said.  

“In college and grad school I learned academically about mental illness, but is was still abstract in my mind.   It wasn’t until I started working in the prison system that I started experiencing people with serious mental health disorders.  In my early years at ODRC, I served on a prison Rules Infractions Board, which serves as the court system inside correctional institutions.  We depended on mental health professionals to help us distinguish between who was ‘bad’ and who was ‘mad’ because we weren’t very good at that,” explained Reggie.  “That doesn’t mean that we let people get away with criminal behavior, but when mental illness was involved, we mitigated it as best we could.”

“The first article I wrote about mental health issues was in 1995, following the Lucasville riot.  The article focused on, among other topics, our failure to recognize the level of mental illness in the correctional system,” Reggie said. 

In the years following the riot, Director Wilkinson oversaw improvements to the state’s prisons that included an overhaul of mental health services.  He became a national leader in criminal justice as Ohio’s prison system adopted progressive standards for mental health services to prisoners.  Reggie testified three times before Congress on the impact of trans-institutionalization and the importance of providing adequate mental health treatment in corrections.   “Ultimately, good mental health care in corrections is better protection for the community.  However, beyond the legal and practical reasons for providing good care,” Reggie stated, “we must provide quality mental health care because it is the right thing to do.”

I believe that education is the most effective means of combating stigma, but treating all people with the highest level of respect and compassion should be everyone’s guiding principle.

Dr. Wilkinson sees today’s prison system as pretty good at providing mental health treatment, “In my mind, this is both good and bad.  I’ve had judges tell me that the reason they sent someone to prison instead of giving them probation was because they knew that they would get the treatment they needed there.”  

According to Reggie, treatment should not stop at the prison gate.  “As prisoners are released, we need to have a re-entry program that is about the person and what that person needs to succeed in the community.  It is important to remember that we’re not just talking about treatment for mental illness, but treatment and services for a cacophony of issues, including substance abuse, developmental disorders, and sex offending behaviors, just to name a few,” he offered.

Reggie provided this advice on how to address the stigma of mental illness, “It was there when I started at ODRC, and it still exists today. I believe that education is the most effective means of combating stigma, but treating all people with the highest level of respect and compassion should be everyone’s guiding principle.” 

Reggie Wilkinson retired from ODRC in 2006.  Since that time, he has been involved in the academic world pursing his passion for education and his underlying philosophy that, “if we want to fix the world, we have to do it through education.” 

Fixing the Hole in the Budget

Last week, the Ohio House of Representatives passed H. B. 318, which will repair a hole in the state’s budget by postponing an income tax reduction for two years.  The bill is currently pending in the Senate Finance Committee.  The bill must pass the Senate and then the House will have to concur with any changes made to the bill by the Senate before it goes to the Governor to be signed.  Without the passage of H. B. 318, it is very possible that we will see additional cuts in mental health.   It is also important to recognize that even if the bill passes, the community mental health system will continue to spiral downward unless immediate steps are taken to replace the 34% cut that was part the FY 2010 – 2011 biennial budget bill. 

For years, mental health advocates have been warning that without adequate investment or attention, the day would come when only those with a Medicaid card would be served in the public mental health system.  Well, that day has arrived.  Individuals who are not enrolled in Medicaid are being refused treatment as a result of the lack of financial resources within the system of care.  Individuals WITHOUT Medicaid make up 40% of Ohioans previously served in the community and these people are being turned away only to see their conditions worsen to a point of crisis.  With no community mental health services available to them, they are showing up at state hospitals, emergency rooms, jails, or in a growing number of cases, morgues.  All of these alternatives to available community based care come with much higher price tags in terms of  financial costs and , even more disturbing, human suffering. 

Please, contact your state Senator and urge him or her to prioritize Ohioans with serious mental illness by directing some of the funds in H.B. 318 to the Ohio Department of Mental Health for community mental health services. It is no exaggeration…emergency rooms, jails and morgues are already feeling the impact of community mental health cuts.


Stigma Busting Challenge: If offensive Halloween attractions or products appear contact sponsors, advertisers or sellers personally. Educate them. Ask them to remove offensive parts of any attraction, advertisements or merchandise that mock mental illness.