NewsOK: Oklahoma City News, Sports, Weather & Entertainment

Council endorses trust to oversee Oklahoma County jail

Advertisement
An inmate stands outside his cell at the Oklahoma County Jail in Oklahoma City, Monday, May 15, 2017. Photo by Nate Billings, The Oklahoman
An inmate stands outside his cell at the Oklahoma County Jail in Oklahoma City, Monday, May 15, 2017. Photo by Nate Billings, The Oklahoman

A powerful committee of community leaders and government officials on Thursday voted overwhelmingly to endorse the creation of a trust to oversee the operation and finances of the aging Oklahoma County jail.

The Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council — headed by Thunder owner Clay Bennett — voted 13-0 in favor of a trust. Sheriff P.D. Taylor and four others on the council abstained from the vote.

The final decision will be made by Oklahoma County commissioners, who could take up the issue as early as next week.

In their vote, the council members urged commissioners to consider a 20-page legal document establishing the trust as only a "working draft." They used that wording after District Attorney David Prater raised concerns.

Prater said the three commissioners need to have a full and open discussion about a trust during their televised meetings to give the public the opportunity to have input. He warned that commissioners could use the advisory council vote as "political cover" to just sign off on the complicated document unless it was submitted as a draft.

"There needs to be a robust conversation about this jail in a public forum, and how we're going to move forward, by the people who are responsible for doing it, and that's the county commissioners. And they have failed to do it for years," the district attorney said.

After the vote, Commissioner Kevin Calvey — who is a council member — promised there will be a full discussion.

The 13-story jail just west of downtown Oklahoma City has been a problem for county officials ever since it opened in 1991. At the start, inmates escaped with ease because of design flaws. It came under federal oversight in 2009 after the U.S. Justice Department found 60 civil rights violations.

Those violations included "an inordinately high risk of detainee-on-detainee violence" because of overcrowding and poor supervision.

In more recent years, the jail has experienced a high number of inmate deaths and problems with mold so severe the kitchen could not be used for months. The sheriff has made significant progress lately in addressing overcrowding and reducing inmate suicides. Taylor does not receive income from county sales tax for jail operations like other sheriffs do.

The sheriff, elected in 2017, has faced new criticism this year over "lost" inmates. He has said those incidents, for the most part, were not the fault of his employees.

Calvey has repeatedly accused the sheriff of mismanagement. The sheriff has fought back, calling Calvey ridiculous in March.

The "working draft" voted on Thursday envisions a nine-member trust that could hire an outside firm to operate the jail. The sheriff has complained that trustees could force him to reduce or eliminate patrol officers, investigators, warrant officers and school resource officers to provide more funding for jail operations. He also has complained many detention officers will leave if they become trust employees and lose county insurance and retirement benefits.

"I've got employees quitting today because they're scared to death they're not going to have a job tomorrow," Taylor told the council Thursday.

"I know for a fact there were companies brought into Oklahoma City this week and interviewed — private prison operators — to see if they wanted to put in RFPs to run the jail," the sheriff said, referring to requests for proposal. "These are scary times for the employees. ... I have a tough time hiring people. I don't have any money. We need funding."

Calvey disputed after the meeting that private prison operators are being interviewed to run the jail. "If there are any here this week, I'm not aware of it," the commissioner said.

Nolan Clay

Nolan Clay was born in Oklahoma and has worked as a reporter for The Oklahoman since 1985. He covered the Oklahoma City bombing trials and witnessed bomber Tim McVeigh's execution. His investigative reports have brought down public officials,... Read more ›

Comments