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 loweredRavitz 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 problemLike most cities in Oklahoma County, Oklahoma City has a contract with Whetsel to keep city inmates at the county jail. Oklahoma City pays the county $41.87 a day to hold an inmate. Last year, city police sent more than 15,000 inmates to the county jail and the city paid the county about $2.2 million to house them. White said the issues raised in the report are serious, and obligate city leaders to follow up with Whetsel. "Given the gravity of these complaints, I think the city ought to take a look at it,” White said. Oklahoma City Manager Jim Couch said he sent Whetsel a letter Monday after he read the report. Couch's letter cites the city's contract with Whetsel, which states that he will operate the jail in compliance with state and federal statutes, and requests that Whetsel and the county work with the Justice Department to solve the issues cited in the report and keep the city updated. Del City Mayor Brian Linley said all cities that contract with the jail have an obligation to follow up on the report. "I definitely think we need to look at it to ensure folks that we take over there are being taken care of above board,” Linley said. "I'm sure all municipalities are concerned with the report they are looking at.” The stickier problem is what might happen if the problems at the jail aren't fixed, White said. Oklahoma City closed its jail years ago and has nowhere else to keep prisoners being held on municipal charges. Other cities in Oklahoma County don't house nearly as many prisoners as Oklahoma City, but few have their own jails, meaning they must rely on the county to hold people who don't pay fines or are sentenced to jail time for municipal offenses. "This is a problem that belongs to all of us,” White said.
Consensus, leadership neededWhetsel said he spoke with Couch on Tuesday and was encouraged by his willingness to help. "He's committed to helping us find solutions,” Whetsel said. "I know the Oklahoma City Chamber is committed to helping us find solutions. It is going to have to be a collective effort.” Representatives from several cities and other stakeholders have taken part in committees looking at overpopulation and funding problems at the jail. Although the issues have been discussed at length, no long- term solution to the jail's funding shortfall has been found. Edmond Mayor Dan O'Neil said he and other municipal officials are willing to get on board if the county can come up with a workable plan. "It is a county-wide issue,” O'Neil said. "It's going to take leadership, and it's going to have to come from the county. It's going to take consensus from the leadership down there. They haven't had that.”
The Justice Department reportIt 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 responseIn 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.