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Oklahoma Co. Sheriff defends jail's conditions

By John Estus and Bryan Dean Modified: August 5, 2008 at 12:10 am •  Published: August 5, 2008
A Justice Department report rips the Oklahoma County jail as a chaotic and largely unsupervised den of "unconscionable” violence, abuse and medical neglect.

Detailed in the federal report are jail deaths, excessive use of force and a "disturbing” incident in which a pregnant woman was handcuffed to a rail for 10 hours while giving birth to a premature baby.

The child died at a metro-area hospital.

The year-old report was delivered to Oklahoma County officials last week, and Sheriff John Whetsel quickly responded Monday that most of the problems the agency found have already been corrected.

"I am confident that our work to resolve these issues will satisfy the concern expressed by the Department of Justice,” Whetsel said. "I have no problem in telling family members that their loved ones are safe.”

He added, "I can tell you this report is one year old. We have made the corrections.”

However, the seriousness of the report led the U.S. Marshals and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to transfer 160 federal inmates from the Oklahoma County jail over the weekend to jails in Tulsa and Grady counties until the issues are officially resolved.

The report details excessive inmate-on-inmate violence and use of force by jail staff, an unsanitary kitchen with birds and insects, lack of clothing and showers, several fire hazards and virtually no mental health treatment. There is also an inadequate investigatory process to review deaths and other serious incidents, according to the report.

A spokesperson for the Justice Department could not be reached for comment late Monday.

A spokesman for U.S. Attorney John Richter said the department's local office was reviewing the letter sent to the county and had no comment.

What's to blame?
The federal report largely blames the mess on overcrowding and understaffing.

"I told you so,” said a news release from District 2 Commissioner Brent Rinehart, a longtime critic of Whetsel's jail management tactics.

Rinehart, who lost his bid for re-election in last week's primary, quoted the report, saying: "Actual direct supervision of detainees at the jail is virtually nonexistent.”

While overcrowding problems have lessened since the agency's inspections between 2003 and 2007, the jail still houses hundreds more inmates than it was built to hold, according to county officials.

About 50 new detention officers have been hired in the past year, but that progress will likely halt. Read the DOJ report

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Sheriff John Whetsel responds to a U.S. Justice Department report that outlined problems at the Oklahoma County jail during a news conference Monday. BY David McDaniel, The Oklahoman

More key findings from the Justice Department's report:

Suicide prevention: "Our review of the investigations involving completed suicides and suicide attempts revealed the jail's failure to respond adequately to issues that could help mitigate the success of these activities.”

Inadequate investigation of serious incidents: "While the jail does have an investigatory process, that process is often inadequate to prevent an adequate understanding of the causes leading to an event, or to implement measures to prevent future, similar events ... The jail lacks a formal process for reviewing even detainee deaths for operational breakdowns.”

Inadequate health care: "We uncovered instances where detainees were not provided adequate access to medical care, specifically acute services — with dire results.”

When an inmate was cuffed to a handrail while giving birth to a baby that later died: "In our expert's opinion, this woman's care was 'unconscionable' during the hours she was in critical need of access to medical care.”

Inadequate mental health care: "Other than medicating detainees with Thorazine (which is an older anti-psychotic medication with serious potential side-effects), the jail offers essentially no mental health services to its seriously mentally ill.”

Unsanitary conditions at jail annex: "Detainees have no soap in the cells to wash their hands. Further, the toilet and drinking faucets are small units with the faucet and basin just above the uncovered, foul smelling, filthy commode stool. If a detainee needs water, the detainee has to cup his hand under the faucet and lap water from his hands close above the filth of the toilet bowl.”

Fire hazards: "Fire safety is a grave concern for this jail. We found serious problems with fire safety training, policies, and safety equipment. Both staff and detainees are in serious jeopardy of injury or death during a fire emergency.”

Source: U.S. Department of Justice

What did report find?
Some of the critical portions of the Justice Department's findings:

Security and supervision: "Actual direct supervision of detainees at the jail is virtually non-existent ... Frequent fights or altercations which occur in the cell areas are often the result of inadequate housing unit supervision by jail staff.”

Inmate-on- inmate violence: "There is an inordinately high risk of detainee-on-detainee violence at the jail as a result of the jail's chronic overcrowding, the staff's inability to supervise detainees, and the ability of detainees to bypass at will the security of their cell doors.”

Staff use of force: "Jail staff frequently resort to use of force to control events. Although such uses of force are not per se inappropriate, between January 2006 and March 2007 there were 1,337 reported use of force incidents. In the opinion of our expert, this is an inordinately high number of use of force incidents for a facility the size of the jail.”

•More findings from the report

Page 3A

Read: The report

Video: Sheriff John Whetsel responds

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