A Texas man is suing the Pittsburg County jail, the Oklahoma Corrections Department and others after he sat in jail for months past his scheduled release, court records show.
At the heart of the lawsuit is the Correction Department's county jail backlog issue, a mounting threat that costs the prison system roughly $20 million each year.
The lawsuit, filed last year in federal court, was ordered Monday to proceed with a scheduling conference, which will be held in June unless the case is resolved or dismissed before that time.
James C. Payne, who filed the lawsuit in October, claims in his lawsuit he was sentenced to a year behind bars for stalking and that he was to be released June 11, 2011.
Court records show that Payne has an Amarillo, Texas, address, and that he was convicted of felony stalking and violating a protective order in 2010.
In the suit, Payne's attorneys wrote that Missi Eldridge, the jail's administrator, and other guards laughed at the inmate in mid-June 2011 when he told them his release date had passed.
One of the guards also made a statement that could be linked to county jail backlog, a term prison officials use to describe the practice of housing prisoners bound for state facilities in county jails, Payne's attorneys allege in the suit.
“(The guard) frequently laughed at the Plaintiff's complaints about his prolonged incarceration and even stated the county made money from the Corrections Department by keeping the Plaintiff jailed,” Payne's attorneys wrote in the lawsuit.
The Corrections Department pays counties $27 per day to house inmates who've been sentenced by district judges to terms in state prisons. The daily rate is set by state law.
An answer to Payne's lawsuit filed by Eldridge's attorneys states that the jail administrator did speak with the inmate about his lawsuit but that she never laughed at him.
As for the June 11, 2011, release date, Eldridge's answer in court does little to resolve the questions in the lawsuit.
“Defendants are without knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief as to the truth of the allegations (of a June 11, 2011, release date),” her attorneys wrote. “The Oklahoma Department of Corrections sets release dates for felony convictions.”
Court records show that Payne was sentenced Feb. 8, 2010, on felony stalking charges. Six months later, he was sentenced for violating a protective order, a misdemeanor.
A Pittsburg County court clerk employee said court records indicate Payne is to be supervised by the state Corrections Department while he's on probation.
A search of the state Corrections Department's online records system finds no listing for James C. Payne.
In the lawsuit, Payne claims to have been released in September 2011, roughly three months after his release date.
Payne is seeking monetary damages in federal court and claims his belongings, which were housed in a storage locker, were auctioned because of his prolonged incarceration.
The Corrections Department and some of the guards listed in Payne's lawsuit have not responded to the suit, records show.
A growing problem
The Corrections Department has roughly 1,700 inmates awaiting transfer to state prisons, a number that has grown nearly 300 percent in the last decade as state prisons deal with overcrowding.
Each year, the state agency pays counties about $20 million to house these inmates, who can stay for months before moving to a state prison.
Many counties, large and small, have publicly complained about the county jail backlog issue.
In June 2012, Bryan County officials sued the state prison system to try and persuade a judge to raise the $27-per-day rate.
The lawsuit, filed last year by the Bryan County Board of Commissioners, is pending in Oklahoma County District Court.