Inmates at the Oklahoma County jail went without a hot meal for nearly two weeks in June, violating state jail standards.
The facility’s kitchen has been inoperable since June 19 because of a collapsed sewer line under the jail, and inmates received three cold meals a day for 13 consecutive days, Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel said.
Oklahoma administrative code requires inmates in state custody receive at least two hot meals per day. Instead, inmates received turkey, bologna, ham and salami sandwiches, a jail spokesman said.
“When they built this facility, they built it on a river bed,” Whetsel said. “And they buried the sewer pipe in moist dirt, and over the years, this cast-iron sewer pipe has begun to disintegrate.”
Oklahoma Baptist Disaster Relief, a volunteer organization, has been on site providing two hot meals per day to inmates since Wednesday, state director Sam Porter said. The organization’s mobile kitchen, which typically responds to tornado or disaster relief efforts, will provide meals to the facility’s roughly 2,500 inmates until July 31, he said.
“(The inmates) were just waving and cheering,” Porter said. “They said ‘We are so glad, we’re tired of cold meals.’ ”
In a letter sent to The Oklahoman dated June 9, an Oklahoma County jail inmate named Steven Alvis said he had received only seven hot meals in the previous six months, a claim Whetsel called an “absolute lie.”
This is the second time in the past five years Porter’s organization has been called in to provide hot meals to jail inmates.
In 2010, a different sewer line under the building collapsed, causing the kitchen to be out of service for several days.
Whetsel said the 2010 collapse was patched relatively quickly, but the most recent collapse is a larger problem. He estimates it could cost the jail $1.5 million to fix.
Whetsel is uncertain when the problem will be resolved, and he is making plans to set up a portable kitchen to prepare meals after the volunteers leave at the end of July.
“We’re not sure how long we’re going to be out of the kitchen, but we’re making preparations and plans as if we will be out of the kitchen four to six months,” Whetsel said.
The Oklahoma County jail opened in 1992. Whetsel said the jail has experienced structural problems during his entire tenure as sheriff.
“This is kind of consistent with the poor design of the structure from Day One,” he said.
An investigator with the Oklahoma Health Department called the plumbing at the jail “an ongoing problem” in a July 2013 inspection report.
Jail inspection records for the past year show a lack of hot water in showers, cell toilets backed up with sewage, drinking water that smells and tastes like sewage, and cells without functioning sinks.
Whetsel said the damaged sewage line does not affect the water coming into the jail or any other area of the detention center.
In his June 9 letter, Alvis said the toilet in his cell overflowed June 6, causing feces and sewage water to pour across the floor. Alvis said when no help from jail staff came, the inmates in his cell plugged the toilet themselves. He said their cell was so full that someone always had to sleep on the floor.
Similar claims made in the past year by inmates at the facility were not substantiated when investigated by the state Health Department.