CONDITIONS at Oklahoma's county jails offer another reminder of why Oklahoma has to rethink its approach to corrections policy.
The Oklahoman's Andrew Knittle spent time traveling to various county jails and reviewing complaint reports. The results aren't pretty. Many county jails are overcrowded, in part because they hold inmates who are supposed to be locked up in state prisons but can't get in because those prisons are overcrowded.
A number of new county jails have been built during the past decade to replace structures that had long ago outlived their usefulness. But those days may be coming to an end. John Judge, who directs the state Health Department's Jail Inspection Division, noted that citizens don't appear keen on the notion of improving inmates' conditions via new facilities.
“Trying to get a bond to build a new jail, trying to fix what they have wrong in their jails now ... people just aren't open to having their taxes increased for individuals who are incarcerated,” Judge said.
Oklahoma County leaders know the feeling. In 2008, the U.S. Justice Department cited the county jail for 60 civil rights violations and threatened to take over operations if improvements weren't made. All but a handful of the problems have been addressed. Jail officials say the rest can only be fixed through significant renovations or a new jail. Both options are expensive.
County commissioners at one point considered asking voters this spring to foot the bill for a new jail via a half-cent sales tax. They changed their minds after a survey showed little interest in that idea. Tulsa County, which has one of the best jails in the state, is mulling a sales tax vote to increase the jail's capacity.
The Oklahoma County jail is one of many that house state inmates. Last week, nearly 1,700 state inmates were being held in county jails. The state prison system is constantly at or near capacity. The system remains that way — the Department of Corrections paid $21 million to counties last year for their efforts — largely because Oklahoma lawmakers embrace a tough-on-crime approach to criminal justice. They want little to do with the idea of trying something different, such as sentencing reform.
Even Texas, with a well-earned reputation for being tough on crime, has figured out that the status quo wasn't working. As a result, it closed a prison. The odds of that happening here are remote at best.
Knittle's reporting touched on the frustrations that stem from county jails holding state inmates. If the counties insist that the Department of Corrections come get its inmates, the agency has 72 hours to do so. The sheriff in Canadian County recently made such a demand. When the DOC didn't come, he ordered his deputies to drop off 17 state inmates at the state prison reception center in Lexington.
Crowded county jails contribute to violence among those being detained. Many sheriffs also cite inadequate funding. That lack of money can result in unsanitary conditions or leave jails with antiquated security. Until a few months ago, every cell in the Cotton County jail was secured with padlocks.
In Greer County, Sheriff Devin Huckabay said he usually has just one jailer per shift. Huckabay works in a building completed in 1920. “We get by with what we get,” he said. “It doesn't look to change much, but that's what we're used to dealing with.”
He's right: It doesn't look to change much. Locals are wary of investing in new digs for inmates. On a broader scale, lawmakers are unlikely to embrace significant corrections reform. The stage is set for serious violence at state prisons and a federal takeover of some local jails.