Oklahoma County jail trust created to address issues, questions remain
A jail trust has been created to oversee the financing and operation of the Oklahoma County jail, moving the long-troubled jail toward the possibility of privatization.
The three Oklahoma County commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to create the trust, which is a nine-member body that will oversee all aspects of the jail, such as facility management and upkeep, inmates, employees and more. The commissioners said they hope the trust will provide more oversight, transparency and accountability to jail functions and funding with more community and stakeholder engagement.
The Oklahoma County jail has a history of serious issues, including deaths, escapes, overcrowding and maintenance problems. In 2009, the jail was put under federal oversight after the U.S. Justice Department found 60 civil rights violations.
“This is a historic day,” County Commissioner Kevin Calvey said. ”There is a lot of work yet to be done by the trustees, but this is the start of how we get the more humane treatment of the inmates, how we get better working conditions for the employees of the jail and how we move toward building whatever new facility may be necessary.”
The nine trustees approved by the commissioners include former state senator Ben Brown, former Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb, Calvey, Oklahoma County Sheriff P.D. Taylor, a public defender and multiple other communities members.
The jail trust will decide what entity it wants to have running the jail. Options include continuing to have the sheriff’s department run the jail, hiring an outside private company or having the trust itself run the jail.
During discussions at the Wednesday meeting, it was mentioned that Tulsa County had previously created a jail trust and hired a private company to run it. After things went poorly, the county asked the Tulsa sheriff's department to again run the facility.
Calvey said he is in favor of the trust hiring a jail administrator and then the trust running the jail in-house, which at least six counties in Oklahoma do.
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Conversations about the creation of the jail trust have gone on for years, and in recent months have been contentious, especially between Commissioner Clavey and Sheriff Taylor. There were many community concerns about what would happen to the current jail employees’ benefits and pay, which still has yet to be figured out in detail. Community members were also concerned with the possibility of privatization.
"Our concern is that the designation of a trust introduces the possibility of privatization of the operation of the jail, where profit becomes primary over personnel and prisoners," said Jim Gragg, representing VOICE OKC, a civic engagement group. "And we are certainly concerned about the personnel in the jail... We certainly feel like the environment in which these people work is a challenging one, and they are to be considered."
There were also worries that law enforcement would lose funding because of the trust, but at the county budget board meeting Wednesday afternoon the full $30 million requested by the sheriff’s department to fund the jail was appropriated. When the trust decides later on what entity will run the jail moving forward, that $30 million will be the money they use to do so.
That amount isn't ideal though as it is bare bones, Taylor said. Most other counties in Oklahoma have a designated countywide sales tax to supplement funds for county jails and law enforcement, but Oklahoma County currently does not. Taylor said he hopes the trust will have its first meeting in the coming weeks to talk through these issues. But for now, the sheriff’s department will continue to manage the jail until the trust says otherwise. “There are so many unanswered questions,” Taylor said. “We’re just in limbo… So it’s business as usual until we’re told otherwise.”