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Oklahoma County Jail Deaths Continue at Record-Breaking Pace

01-May-2017

Last year, the Oklahoma County Jail had a record breaking number of inmate deaths, both by suicide and "natural causes." The deaths began in January, when 59-year-old Ismael Shee Liwang died of suspected natural causes, and they continued until December 20, when 57-year-old Richard Smith was found unresponsive in his cell and died of complications from a pre-existing medical condition. These two deaths were the bookends for 13 other deaths, including 5 deaths by suicide. That's 15 inmates who died in the custody of the Oklahoma County Jail--more than one a month, and one-third of those inmates killed themselves. Fifteen deaths, compared to 4 in 2015 and 6 in 2016--quite a spike.

The high death rate at the jail reportedly prompted jail officials to change protocols and increase medical personnel on duty; however, it seems that little has changed. This year, the death rate is right on track with last year's rate, casting doubt on the theory that last year was an anomaly instead of an alarming trend.

In fact, on April 9, 2017, when inmate Aaron Ducky Spottedcorn taped a piece of paper over his window and hung himself from a bedsheet, he became the fourth Oklahoma County Jail inmate to die this year. Last year, there were only 3 jail deaths by April 9 (although the 4th came just a couple of days later, on April 11). So far, Spottedcorn's death is the only Oklahoma County jail suicide in 2017; of the four deaths by this point last year, only one was a suicide as well.

Acting Sheriff PD Taylor says that it is virtually impossible to prevent all jail suicides, saying, "If somebody really wants to kill themselves, there's not much anybody can do about it because the ones who are serious about it don't talk about it, they just do it." But when your number of suicides exceeds the entire death rate for the previous year, it seems clear that your policies and protocols are insufficient. It's time to take a closer look at how you handle mental health issues in the jail instead of throwing up your hands and saying, "Can't win 'em all."

Here's another interesting statistic when it comes to the Oklahoma County Jail death rate: Oklahoma ranks in the top 10 states in the number of jail deaths (this is counting local jails, not state prisons), according to a report in the Huffington Post. But it's important to note that it's in the top 10 in TOTAL deaths; when calculating per capita, the state jumps to 4th place. Of the 21 deaths the Huffington Post discovered at local jails in Oklahoma, 15 of those occurred at the Oklahoma County Jail. One wonders--does this make the Oklahoma County jail the deadliest jail in the nation?

It is no secret that the Oklahoma County Jail has been plagued by problems since its opening. In 2008, the United States Department of Justice called the jail an "an unsafe environment for detainees and staff, and may have resulted in serious harm to detainees." The jail became the subject of numerous lawsuits, and the federal government threatened takeover. While several improvements were made, the death rate at the jail, including the high rate of suicide, makes it apparent that more improvements are necessary. 

In fact, the DOJ cited an "awkward layout" and an inmate population that doubled the intended capacity as problems, accounting for "virtually non-existent" supervision of detainees. And now, a decade later, the jail is still at double capacity, and the physical layout of the facility is unchanged. 

Former sheriff John Whetsel requested a bigger jail, but city leaders balked, heading a task force aimed at reducing the prison population instead of building a bigger facility to warehouse inmates. 

Until reforms are made to reduce the jail population, the Oklahoma County Sheriff's Department has got to come up with a better way to supervise inmates and provide the mental health and medical services needed to prevent unnecessary deaths.  
 



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