As Oklahoma County Jail Deaths Continue, Detention Officers Could Face Charges


In May of this year, we examined deaths at the Oklahoma County Jail, citing a Huffington Post article saying that Oklahoma ranks 10th in the nation in total number of jail deaths, and 4th in the nation in jail deaths per capita. Because 15 of the 21 deaths of Oklahoma jail inmates occurred at the Oklahoma County Jail, we wondered if perhaps those figures made that jail the deadliest jail in the nation.

We cited number of jail deaths in previous years in order to highlight how the death rate at the jail is increasing exponentially. In 2014, four inmates died; in 2015, six inmates died; in 2016, fifteen inmates died--more than one a month.

Despite claims of new protocols intended to reduce the number of inmate deaths at the Oklahoma County Jail, the 2017 death rate is on track to be another record-breaking year. By mid-August, the jail had seen its tenth death of the year.

Now the Oklahoma County District Attorney's Office says detention officers may face criminal charges in one of the most recent deaths.

On August 18, 2017, jail employees found inmate Mitchell Everett Willis, 54, unresponsive in his cell. Willis had been arrested earlier that morning on complaints of public drunkenness, assault and battery, and other charges. 

After resuscitation efforts failed, Willis was pronounced dead in his cell. Initial reports called his death a "possible suicide."

However, an investigation determined that the inmate suffered a severed spine. Investigators say the injury may have been caused by excessive force from a "rookie detention officer."

The detention officer, who had been with the jail for less than seven months, admitted to putting a knee into the inmate's back to subdue him. Acting Sheriff P.D. Taylor reassigned the officer, stating, "Due to your involvement in an ongoing use-of-force investigation, you are being reassigned to a post that has no inmate contact whatsoever, effective immediately."

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater says he is "concerned" about the information he has received regarding the inmate's death, and he is awaiting the results of the investigation to determine whether or not criminal charges will be filed.

Meanwhile, Willis's death is not the only one that could lead to criminal charges against detention officers.

Prater met with the OSBI this month regarding the investigation into the death of inmate Charlton Cash Chrisman, 40, of Yukon. Chrisman died after being involved in two altercations with detention officers.

Chrisman, who had a history of drug use and mental health issues, was arrested after crashing his car into a hospital emergency room waiting area. 

Jail video shows one officer opening Chrisman's cell door, and other officers firing multiple pepper balls at the inmate in a jail corridor.

The state medical examiner listed the cause of Chrisman's death as "agitated delirium due to acute methamphetamine intoxication with a contributing factor of "multiple" hits from pepper balls fired by detention officers.

After viewing the video, Prater said, "I anticipate that there will be criminal charges filed in this case. I can see no justification for the actions the officers took."
Insufficient officer training and inadequate medical and mental health care at the Oklahoma County Jail are considered to be two of the primary factors contributing to the high death rate at the jail. While the sheriff's office cites improved protocols to prevent inmate deaths, the numbers seem to show little, if any, effect these claimed protocols have on decreasing the death rate at the Oklahoma County Jail.

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