Oklahoma County Jail Criticized for Lack of Transparency in Jail Deaths


Last year, the Oklahoma County Jail broke a new record, although it is certainly nothing to boast about. In 2016, fifteen inmates at the jail died. Some of these deaths occurred from natural causes or medical complications, but a large number were deaths by suicide.

After former Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel stepped down, acting sheriff P.D. Taylor, who would later be voted in as the new Oklahoma County Sheriff, said that things would get better at the jail. New policies and procedures would help reduce the death rate by giving inmates better access to medical care and mental health treatment.

However, as 2017 draws to a close, the jail doesn't seem to be in much better standing as far as inmate deaths go. In fact, current figures show that a dozen inmates have died so far this year--only three fewer less than last year, and we still have a week to go.

Some of those deaths were again suicide. However, we also have the death of 32-year-old Amanda Lynette Freeman, who died of acute coronary event caused by methamphetamine use four days after being booked into the jail. A 67-year-old jail nurse who reportedly attempted to perform an exorcism on the woman was subsequently banned from the jail. 

We also have the death of Charlton Cash Chrisman, 40, of Yukon, who died after being repeatedly shot with pepper balls by jailers Colton Ray, 26, and Brian Harrison, 33. The two jailers are being charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon after prosecutors determined that they acted "without justifiable or excusable cause" in the incident.

Media outlets and the American Civil Liberties Union have both attempted to get records of the jail deaths from the Oklahoma County Jail; however, both say their requests have been denied. 

Instead of providing records of their responses to jail deaths, the organizations say, the Oklahoma County Jail instead released a list of changes that they say are intended to improve safety and reduce the death rate at the jail. These include the following:

  • efforts to release certain low-risk inmates on their own recognizance or on conditional bond release, thereby reducing the jail population to below 2,000 (the jail was built to house 1,200 inmates)
  • installation of 50 security cameras
  • rehabilitation of jail pods and the kitchen area
  • new procedures for improved booking process
  • working more closely with the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to identify inmates who need access to mental health services
  • sending inmate lists to the state Health Department to screen for pre-existing conditions and necessary medications

It seems as if these new measures don't go far enough in protecting the jail's inmates; in fact, some improvements--like kitchen renovations--appear to have little to do with reducing the number of jail deaths.

This lack of transparency is noted not only by the media and the ACLU, but also by the United States Department of Justice. In October, the Oklahoma County commissioners denied a request by the DOJ to visit and inspect the jail, despite knowing their decision could lead to a federal lawsuit. The visit was intended to assess compliance with demands made by the federal government to address known issues with the jail. However, District Attorney David Prater said of the request, "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." 

The real or perceived lack of transparency at the jail makes it seem as if the county knows it has something to hide.

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