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Oklahoma County jail conditions improve, but deficiencies remain

Oklahoma County sheriff's Maj. Jack Herron, the jail administrator, said operational improvements already have contributed to a decline in violent incidents, the use of force by staff and recidivism in general.
BY ZEKE CAMPFIELD Published: April 30, 2012

County officials say major improvements have been made in the medical and mental health treatment of prisoners in the Oklahoma County jail, an issue the U.S. Justice Department has identified as a serious problem.

“We've been working with our medical provider and I would say they're very close on a lot of issues already. It took a change, really, of an entire mindset of the agency,” Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel said Friday.

A new medical contractor and revamped assessment and treatment operations at the jail have resolved most of the operational concerns at the jail's medical and mental health facilities, Whetsel said.

Whetsel said the county jail is the largest mental health facility in the state, with about 350 to 400 inmates diagnosed with a mental disorder or on psychotropic medication at any given time.

Florida-based Armor Correctional Health Services Inc. is the new medical provider at the county jail, and likely the most important change the company has made is the retention of a new physician, Dr. Jerry Childs.

Childs, who has 30-plus years of emergency room experience, has stepped up supervision of physician assistants and nursing staff and, along with Armor, has implemented policies that provide better guidance to nursing staff on critical assessments and follow-ups, Whetsel said.

Additionally, Armor installed an electronic medical record system at the jail last year and developed new policies on urgent care assessment and chest pain nursing protocol.

Armor “believes it has resolved the health and mental issues at the jail, but we are awaiting an official response from (Department of Justice),” said Vickie Freeman, the company's vice president of clinical support and operations.

Justice Department officials said in a letter to the county dated March 15 that a failure to address problems with the jail's medical and mental health treatment programs appears to be contributing to significant harm at the jail.

At least three of seven deaths reported at the jail since March 2011 involved serious clinical missteps, including a lack of appropriate assessments and follow-ups and tasks beyond the clinical capabilities of staff, according to the letter.

Remaining issues

Remaining issues identified by the Justice Department in the letter include insufficient staffing levels and the facility itself, Whetsel said.

He said 56 of 60 potential civil rights violations identified by the Justice Department in 2007 will no longer be monitored, but funding limits the county's ability to address these final problems.

Maj. Jack Herron, jail administrator, said operational improvements at the jail already have contributed to a decline in violent incidents, the use of force by staff and recidivism in general.

Better partnerships with the state's health care community, as well as cooperation with the local public defender's office and district attorney, has meant better treatment options and lower incarceration rates for inmates with mental health issues, Herron said.

Among other improvements:

• A new inmate monitoring system;

• A “suicide watch” program;

• An inmate classification system;

• A use of force panel review board; and

• Additional health care staff, including the hiring of a full-time psychiatrist.

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