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Oklahoma County jail's death toll draws federal ire

By Nolan Clay and John Estus Modified: August 7, 2008 at 12:34 pm •  Published: August 7, 2008
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The Oklahoma County jail can be a deadly place.

At least 44 jail inmates have died in the jail's custody since Jan. 1, 2000, records show.

Several were suicides, often by hanging. A few were beaten to death by other inmates. One may have been killed by detention officers. Many died from natural causes, but sometimes those health problems may have been aggravated by beatings or poor care.

Some of the deaths were actually in the jail. Others occurred after inmates were moved for medical treatment.

Three times — in 1998, 2002 and 2005 — babies born to jail inmates did not survive.

In a year-old report made public this week, the U.S. Justice Department pointed to some of the deaths to justify its conclusion that inmates' rights are being violated in the jail.

Federal officials removed 160 federal defendants from the jail because of the problems.

Among the factors behind the deaths are "an inordinately high risk of detainee-on-detainee violence,” virtually nonexistent direct supervision of detainees, "deficient suicide prevention” and inadequate health care, the report found. County officials insist improvements already have been made.

One of the examples in the Justice Department report was the 2005 baby death. The Justice Department said the care of the baby's mother was "unconscionable;” the mother had been handcuffed to a rail for most of 10 hours.

How sheriff responds
Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel, who oversees the jail, said the number of deaths doesn't seem high since the jail books in up to 45,000 people a year. Read the letter sent from Oklahoma City to Sheriff Whetsel Read the DOJ report

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A review of Oklahoma County jail deaths
In the wake of the scathing Justice Department report on the Oklahoma County jail, The Oklahoman reviewed dozens of lawsuits over jail conditions, state medical examiner reports on deaths since Jan. 1, 2000, and criminal cases against inmates charged with murder. The review found:

•Three inmates have died in custody this year.

•Almost a dozen inmates killed themselves since Jan. 1, 2000. The latest suicide was in April. Kenneth Griffin, 48, a former police officer, was found hanging from a sheet tied through an upper bunk. He was arrested after he allegedly paid a friend to have his wife murdered. The Justice Department report pointed to a suicide of an inmate in protective custody in June 2006 as an example of inadequate checks on inmates. The inmate had used a blade removed from a safety razor and had gone unchecked long enough that "blood had been dripped or smeared on every wall of the cell,” according to the report. The inmate, Kevin Hagan, 29, had been checked at 3:19 p.m. but was not checked again for almost 90 minutes, the medical examiner found.

•The FBI and the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation are still investigating the 2007 death of Christopher Beckman. His family blames guards. The medical examiner found Beckman died from blunt force trauma to the head and that he reportedly had struggled with guards.

•Three inmates were beaten to death by other inmates. The Justice Department found one victim died after a fight over a breakfast tray. He was killed while there was no guard present even though jailers knew he was mentally disturbed and believed cell mates were plotting against him and stealing his food. Jailers had stated his behavior was "likely to cause him to be harmed by others.”

•Some inmates whose deaths were ruled from natural causes had suffered recent beatings that may have contributed to their deaths. A death last November was blamed on the inmate's enlarged heart. The medical examiner found a head injury from an altercation with another inmate could have been a factor, too.

•Chrissy Dollarhide-Johnson, the mother who gave birth in jail in 2005, has sued the jail's doctor and medical provider over her baby boy's death. The Justice Department reported the mother was found on the ground in bloody water after being handcuffed to a rail for about 10 hours. She was observed pulling out the baby herself. An autopsy found the baby was three months premature and had been exposed to methamphetamine. The mother is facing drug charges after two arrests this year. The jail's medical provider denies it is to blame for the baby's death, saying the baby was not moving in the womb before the mother's arrest. In a response to the Justice Department report, the provider wrote: "The hospital ... revealed there was nothing our Medical Department could have done to preserve the life of the baby.”

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