Oklahoma County jail legal settlements cost $2.5M

By John Estus Published: August 10, 2008
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© Copyright 2008, The Oklahoman

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


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A timeline of troubles
•Nov. 22, 1991: The $52 million jail opens. The 501,560-square-foot, 13-story jail was paid for with a 1-cent sales tax that ended in 1988.

Jan. 16, 1992: The jail, billed as "escape-proof,” was proved otherwise when a burglary defendant used a broken mop handle to smash four window panes. He then used bed sheets to escape used through a second-story window. Repeated escape attempts followed.

•July 6, 1993: County commissioners voted to sue the jail's builder and designers for flaws that led to the escape problems. The suit was against the jail's prime contractor, Tulsa-based Manhattan Construction Co. Inc., and jail architects HTB Inc. and R.G.D.C. Inc., both of Oklahoma City. The suit was settled for $530,300. R.G.D.C. and Manhattan Construction split the cost.

•Feb. 13, 1995: District Attorney Bob Macy announced a grand jury investigation into possible criminal wrongdoing in the jail construction. The grand jury did not indict anyone.

Sept. 17, 1996: After 15 years in office, Sharp is defeated in a runoff election by Choctaw Police Chief John Whetsel. Sharp blamed the loss on criticism of the jail.

•July 27, 1999: Whetsel announced that 177 federal inmates were removed from the jail after U.S. Marshals complained their civil rights were being violated. Two federal inmates sued the county, claiming they were beaten by other inmates for cooperating with a federal drug investigation shortly before the removal. The two later received an $80,000 settlement. Federal inmates were returned to the jail in May 2000.

•May 13, 2003: Whetsel's plan to raise $30 million a year for jail operations goes down in flames as 81 percent of voters reject a two-fifths cent sales tax. A task force formed the next day by County Commissioner Stan Inman brought Whetsel and his critics together to look for a permanent funding solution.

May 28, 2003: A new probe begins as the U.S. Justice Department launches an investigation into civil rights abuses at the jail.

•Nov. 9, 2005: A private consulting firm hired by the jail funding task force recommends a $109 million renovation and expansion of the jail. The group also recommended hiring about 270 more jailers. The recommended improvements would have moved functions like the kitchen and medical area out of the current building and into an annex. It would also have provided an area to house minimum security inmates. No action has been taken on the recommendations.

•Aug. 4, 2008: The Justice Department's report on the jail is released. The report details problems such as a lack of supervision of inmates, a prevalence of violence between detainees, excessive use of force by guards and unsanitary conditions.

Biggest payouts
Here is a brief look at the four biggest settlements of Oklahoma County jail lawsuits over the last decade.

1. Tim Miller was beaten by jailers after he was arrested on Halloween 2003 for failing to finish a DUI school. He was hospitalized for nearly three weeks after suffering extensive injuries including a shattered femur and hip and damage to his genitals, court records show.

He said he was attacked after he saw jailers beating two other inmates and told them, "Don't you think the old boy's had enough?” He said two officers told him, "We're coming to see you next!”

Sheriff John Whetsel in court papers blamed two officers who violated policy, and Miller's actions, for the beating. Whetsel said the two officers were no longer at the jail.

Miller settled the lawsuit for $580,000 in 2006. The county still owes some of the money. Also, it already has paid almost $95,000 more in interest on the judgment.

2. Debra Ann Smith alleged her repeated cries for help were ignored in the jail as she went through labor one night in March 1998. She was in jail after being charged with child abuse. She gave birth in jail but the boy, D'Janay Smith, did not survive, court records show. Officials said she had a miscarriage and had failed to disclose her pregnancy when she was screened.

A federal jury in 2002 cleared the county of liability but a federal judge overturned the verdict. The county then settled the lawsuit for $385,000.

A second inmate who gave birth in jail in 2002 also sued the county after her baby boy did not survive. Tiffani Jerica Bowers settled her lawsuit for $40,000.

3. A shoplifting suspect with AIDS died in 1996, one day after being taken from the jail to a hospital. The family of Walter Ray Hager Jr. sued, alleging he was not given his medication and was denied proper medical care at the jail.

After Hager's death, then-Sheriff J.D. Sharp said Hager sometimes refused his medication.

County commissioners denied wrongdoing but voted in 2001 to settle the lawsuit for $92,500.

4. Lewis Avery Roberts, 40, died on Aug. 29, 2002, after a struggle with jailers shortly after his arrest in Oklahoma City, He was jailed after allegedly threatening people with a piece of broomstick. In jail, he was stripped, pepper sprayed, forced into a shower then later restrained face down and in handcuffs on a bunk. "Multiple officers were on top of him holding him down” when he stopped breathing, his family's attorneys said. He weighed less than 150 pounds.

His family alleged he died because of excessive force and because jailers at first just stood around watching when his breathing stopped. They settled the lawsuit last year for $87,500.

Compiled by Staff Writer Nolan Clay

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