Oklahoma County looks to ease jail crowds

By Bryan Dean and John Estus Published: August 6, 2008
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The fallout from a scathing Justice Department report released Monday about conditions at the Oklahoma County jail points to one overriding problem — overcrowding.

The responsibility for the jail lies primarily with Sheriff John Whetsel, but overcrowding is not a new problem, and it's not one that can be solved by Whetsel alone, community leaders said Tuesday.

Oklahoma County Public Defender Bob Ravitz said since the jail was built in 1991, it has been common practice to put two and three inmates into cells initially built for one. "You can't take a facility that was built for 1,200 people and double-bunk these people and all of the sudden have 2,800 people,” Ravitz said.

Area leaders said solving overcrowding likely will solve the problems detailed in the Justice Department report.

Oklahoma City Ward 4 Councilman Pete White said state and local governments must work together.

"They've got to start funding drug court so that everyone is not locked up,” White said.

"They've got to start funding diversion programs. Either that or we've got to build an Empire State Building-sized jail.”

Oklahoma County commissioners are expected to form a committee next week that will look at options for solving overcrowding. Building a new jail will get serious discussion, District 3 Commissioner Ray Vaughn said.

Jail population lowered
Ravitz and others said the tensions and complications of an overcrowded jail lead to many of the problems described in the report, which ripped the jail for lax supervision of inmates, inadequate medical care and a prevalence of violence among other things.

The report was based on investigations of the jail between 2003 and 2007, but Justice Department spokeswoman Jamie Hais said she couldn't say why the agency chose to investigate the jail.

According to federal law, the Justice Department can only investigate a county jail if there is a perceived pattern or practice of illegal acts in the jail.

The sheriff's department must respond to the agency's complaints or it could be forced to pay a settlement or face a lawsuit by the U.S. attorney general.

Ravitz filed a lawsuit in 2006 that led a county judge to order Whetsel and the state Corrections Department to remove hundreds of state inmates from the county jail to ease overcrowding.

Since then, the jail population has gone down.

It was frequently hovering around its 2,890 capacity each day, but is now typically in the 2,200 range. On Tuesday, 2,256 inmates were in the jail.

Still, that's about 1,000 more than the 1,200 inmates the jail was built to hold.

Why it's everyone's problem
Like most cities in Oklahoma County, Oklahoma City has a contract with Whetsel to keep city inmates at the county jail. Read the letter sent from Okalhoma City to Sheriff Whetsel
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The Justice Department report
It harshly criticized many of the jail's operations, including:

•Security and supervision of inmates, which it called "virtually non-existent.”

•Excessive violence between inmates and between inmates and detention officers.

•Faulty locks on cell doors.

•Inadequate suicide prevention techniques.

•Poor investigation and review of serious incidents.

•Poor health care and mental health care.

•Unsanitary conditions throughout the jail.

•Dangerous fire hazards.

The sheriff's response
In a 148-page response to the report, Sheriff John Whetsel detailed how he says some problems have been fixed.

•More detention officers were hired and schedules were altered to allow for more supervision of inmates.

•A new handcuffing system was implemented that led to decreased use of force incidents by detention officers.

•All cell door locks are being modified to fix faulty locks prisoners could open themselves.

•A sanitation team was created to address unsanitary conditions throughout the jail.

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