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Allegations of death, abuse and neglect in the Oklahoma County jail cost taxpayers more than $2.5 million in legal settlements and attorney fees in the past decade, county records show.
One inmate reached a $580,000 settlement after jailers beat him so severely his testicles swelled to the size of "softballs,” said officials who saw pictures of the injury.
Another inmate gave birth in jail to a boy who died. She got $385,000 after claiming inadequate medical care.
Abuse has been rampant at the jail for years, but problems are kept quiet largely because inmates' lawsuits usually don't go to trial, current and former county commissioners said.
"It's inadvertently covered up by these out-of-court settlements, so the public doesn't know,” said former Oklahoma County Commissioner Stan Inman. "We settled a bunch of them because we knew we were sunk going in, and the fear of what a jury will do.”
The county has paid nearly $1.8 million since 1998 to settle nearly three dozen lawsuits over jail troubles. Some of the taxpayer money went to former inmates and some went to the families of dead jail inmates, the records show.
Dozens more jail-related lawsuits and tort claims are pending. The county still owes $361,000 of unpaid settlements, which are sometimes paid in installments.
Commissioners said they typically rubber-stamped payments to settle jail claims at the request of their attorneys and attorneys for Sheriff John Whetsel, who oversees the problematic jail.
"In all instances, we follow the recommendation of the district attorney,” Whetsel said.
Whetsel said a vast majority of lawsuits against him are dismissed, and cases that are settled are done so in the best interest of the taxpayer. Avoiding trial costs and the possibility of a large jury verdict ultimately saves taxpayer money, the sheriff said.
The cost of settlements is low when considering the $10 million in revenue that is created by booking 45,000 people into the jail each year, Whetsel said. He said other sheriff's departments of similar size have paid out tens of millions of dollars in settlements in the past decade.
"In the grand scheme of things, I think our judgments in Oklahoma County have been minimal and our attorneys have done an excellent job of protecting that,” Whetsel said.
A U.S. Justice Department report made public last week highlighted a litany of problems with violence and medical care at the jail. Such problems led to most of the settlements reviewed by The Oklahoman
"It's my opinion that the county settles to keep from public view the actual facts of the case,” District 2 Commissioner Brent Rinehart said. "There's no explanation about having a man's testicles kicked until they're blue and the size of softballs.”
Rinehart lost his re-election bid and has been Whetsel's biggest critic of late.
‘We don't stand a chance'
Former Commissioner Stuart Earnest said assistant district attorneys often told commissioners there was no chance the county could win many of the jail lawsuits. Inman said that's because Whetsel's private attorneys typically urged assistant district attorneys to settle the cases.
The largest settlement the county has agreed to pay for a jail incident was the $580,000 to former inmate Timothy Miller, who sued after being beaten by jailers in 2003.
Read the DOJ report