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Oklahoma County Jail Denies Federal Inspection Request


Since 2009, the Oklahoma County Jail has been under federal oversight, required to comply with numerous mandates in order to improve inmate safety. Citing more than 60 civil rights violations, the United States Justice Department imposed specific requirements of the jail, some of which have been met, others which have not.

However, in early October, the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division filed a request to tour the Oklahoma County Jail between November 6 and 10. The County denied the request, a move which could result in another federal lawsuit against the facility.

County officials, the Sheriff's Department, and jail officials say that their agencies have made multiple improvements based on the federal mandates, but that a few changes--like a new jail or significant improvements to the existing facility--are impossible without voter support for more funding.

The County Commissioners seem to be under the impression that they should be lauded for making the changes they have, even though they haven't made all the reforms required by the federal government. According to Brian Maughan, chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, "I feel like we've done everything that we could do within our power. I feel like we have satisfied most of their concerns and we should be given recognition for that."

Among the changes that have been made is the reduction of the inmate population from 2,700 when the Justice Department last visited three years ago, to less than 2,000 now. 

However, other changes seem slower in coming. Among the disturbing situations at the jail in 2009 were the "inordinately high risk of detainee-on-detainee violence," the "deficient suicide prevention" measures, and the inadequate health care.

But over the last two years, the jail has been plagued with a high death rate--in many cases, these deaths were the result of suicides, showing little, if any, improvement in suicide prevention policies. Other deaths have led to possible charges against jail employees as inmates died of medical complications which should not have been lethal if handled appropriately. And in July, the jail had its first homicide since 2014 as a result of inmate on inmate violence.

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater says that the jail improvements are more rapidly facilitated by the threat of federal involvement than by actual inspections: "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." He warns that a federal lawsuit as a result of the denied tour request could "derail" reform efforts.

But if the jail was truly making the changes it claimed, wouldn't it welcome an inspection? Wouldn't it want the chance to prove that improvements were being made? If the news stories of a rapidly skyrocketing death rate are exaggerated, it seems that a tour of the facility would help clear up any confusion and allow federal inspectors to see firsthand the reforms to the jail and its policies.

"No, you can't come see, and if you sue us, it could make things worse," seems to be a poor response to a federal department concerned about documented civil rights violations at the facility.



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