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Despite Denied Request, U.S. Justice Department Plans Inspection of Oklahoma County Jail

28-Dec-2017

There is no question that the Oklahoma County Jail has had more than its share of troubles since its opening in November 1991. The "escape-proof" jail saw two inmates escape within two months of opening. The facility had no mental health ward, and it lacked sufficient medical facilities. By 2000, the jail saw a rash of suicides--5 inmates killed themselves by August 2000, compared to only one suicide the entire year prior. Despite federal intervention, the number of jail deaths has continued to climb. In 2016, fifteen inmates died while in custody of the Oklahoma County Jail. So far in 2017, a dozen have died, including a woman who died following an attempted exorcism by a jail nurse and an inmate who died after being shot with pepper balls. Still, the majority of jail deaths at the Oklahoma County Jail result from suicide.

In addition to the lack of appropriate mental health care and medical care is the serious overcrowding at the jail. Designed to house 1,200 inmates, the jail has had as many as 2,427 inmates as recently as the beginning of this year--more than double the intended capacity. Now jail officials are boasting of the improvements at the jail as the population has decreased to below 2,000. By last Friday, the population had fallen to around 1,600. While that is a significant improvement, the new population of 1,952 is still significantly higher than the jail was intended to house.

Many recent improvements at the jail have been prompted by working with organizations like the Vera Institute, which the jail began after county commissioners refused former Sheriff John Whetsel's request to build a new jail. Instead of building a bigger jail, they said, it would be better to improve the one we already have, and to reduce the population. A smaller inmate population is better than a bigger jail to hold them all.

But the jail cannot take credit for improvements on its own initiative. Rather, many improvements were the result of mandated changes after a federal lawsuit by the United Stated Department of Justice. The DOJ essentially told Oklahoma County, "Fix it, or we're taking over."

The Oklahoma County Jail saw many improvements, but they did not meet all necessary changes by the DOJ deadline. Still, the Justice Department recognized that the jail was working toward its goal, and extended the deadline. 

Of course, the number of jail deaths over the last two years (which are coincidentally the two years since the DOJ's last visit) show that the jail has not yet improved enough, and an increasing death rate shows that maybe things haven't improved as much as jail officials claim.

In October, the Justice Department requested an inspection the following month; the county commissioners denied the request. County Commissioner Brian Maughan said, "[W]e've had a lot of corrective changes, and I think we should be recognized for that." In other words, the jail needs a pat on the back for what they have done, rather than an inspection to see what they haven't accomplished yet.

Another commissioner, Ray Vaughn, said that the visit would slow down existing progress: "It's going to impede the direction and the impetus that we currently have in place. It does tie up a lot of our materials and our personnel over at the jail for a number of days, and it takes a great deal of preparation to be able to host them."

Finally, Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said essentially that the threat of inspection was more powerful than an inspection itself would be for motivating change: "The reform process initiated by the Department of Justice is still in progress and has impressive momentum. The uncertain threat of future department involvement has been powerful in motivating reform and will continue to be — far much more so than an actual inspection."

However, despite the County Commissioners' denial of the Justice Department's request to visit the jail, the federal agency is coming anyway. 

According to Justice Department attorney Cathleen Trainor, the agency will conduct a tour in 2018, according to a "Memorandum of Understanding" (MOU) established in 2009 when the jail came under federal oversight when an investigation found more than 60 civil rights violations at the jail.

Trainor wrote, "We appreciate your assurances that the county has made progress towards compliance, and understand that both the county and the state of Oklahoma are invested in reforming your justice system. We anticipate seeing results from these efforts in your next Compliance Report."

In other words, talk is cheap. If you've made the improvements you claim, then it's time to let us see them--especially since the death rate has risen since the last visit in 2014, the jail had its first homicide since 2014, and two jailers are facing charges for firing pepper balls at an inmate who later died.

It's time for the Oklahoma County Jail to put its money where its mouth is.

 



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