Jail’s Problems Continue

City of Oklahoma City, City Manager Jim Couch speaks on his plans to retire on Jan. 2, 2019, and his accomplishments as city manager at his office in Oklahoma City.

According to recently issued reports, the problems with the Oklahoma County Jail are ongoing and pervasive.

The reports cite health and safety problems, as well as a persistent short-staffing situation as among great concerns.

The jail has been under a county jail trust since July 2020.

Among the problems highlighted in those reports were a lack of inmate access to showers and clean bedding, bed bugs, unsupervised open doors and holes in cell walls that allowed inmates to move freely from cell to cell.  The jail remains short on staff, and inspectors cited concerns about training and safety procedures among workers.

The jail’s population is on the rise as hundreds of inmates wait there to be transferred to the state’s prisons.

The jail failed an inspection by the Oklahoma State Department of Health on June 23, which led to the removal of all juveniles being held in the facility.  On Oct. 21, the health department did a surprise follow-up inspection, which the jail also failed. 

In June, the Oklahoma Department of Health  noted 35 deficiencies within the jail.  October’s inspection noted 29 deficiencies.  

On both occasions, some violations were repeat occurrences while others were first-time problems.

In addition to the failed health inspections, a report highlighting many of the ongoing problems with recommendations for improvement was issued by The National Institute of Corrections, a federal agency.

Jail administrator Greg Williams and trust chairman Jim Couch said the federal consultants were invited to the jail in May to provide input and guidance on the situation the county jail trust had inherited.

“There was a lot of apprehension.  There was a lot of concern about how things were going, there was a lot of turnover at the time,” Couch said.  “It was an unstable time for us when we took it over.”

At least a dozen inmates have died in the past 12 months while in jail custody, including an inmate shot by police after taking a jail worker hostage, and several people have escaped from the facility.  The Oklahoma County District Attorney also has launched an investigation into the jail and the trust.

“We’re a service agency and we’re providing a service to the community,” Mr. Couch said.  

“I know sometimes we could do a better job, but it isn’t because we’re not trying and it isn’t because our heart’s not in the right place.”

Poor health and living conditions in the jail

The National Institute of Corrections noted that “sanitation of the facility was very disturbing,” and that housing units were “in poor condition.” 

The state listed concerns about showers failing to drain or with “a build-up of dirt, debris and trash.”  

The federal agency also found that “shower areas were without lighting, unsanitary with drains clogged and holding standing water”

Mr. Williams acknowledged trash can be an issue when inmates dispose of it inappropriately causing drains to become clogged.

The health department found that those housed in the jail were not being provided with showers or bedding in compliance with department standards.  The state requires showers at least three times per week.

Some jail residents were not offered any chance to shower during a week, while others were given only one or two chances, the report noted.  

Bedding is required to be exchanged weekly, but according to the health department happens much less frequently.

“Records revealed laundry is exchanging blankets at least once every seven (7) weeks, in accordance with Oklahoma County Sheriff’s policy,” the health report said.

Mr. Williams said he believes much of the issue is simply an error in recordkeeping. Williams said the health department wants records for individual inmates, which hasn’t been the standard procedure for the jail.

“It’s documentation,” he said.  “Typically, we’ll document a pod is exchanged because we’ll take enough bedding and clothing and exchanges to an entire pod.”

Williams said his staff needs to do a better job because “if it’s not documented then they (inspectors) consider it not happening.”

Insects and other vermin are listed in both reports as a cause for concern, with specific emphasis placed on the presence of bed bugs. Mr. Couch said the issue with bed bugs has continued to be a priority for jail leadership and the jail has seen an improvement.

Mr. Williams said the jail is being sprayed nearly weekly, with special focus on high-traffic areas such as intake and holding.  Pods on floors 2, 4, and 6 were the first to receive spray treatments and Williams said it has been successful.

“We’ve been very reactive, but we’re getting to be more proactive,” he said.

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