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Oklahoma County looks to ease jail crowds

By Bryan Dean and John Estus Published: August 6, 2008
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 needed
Whetsel 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.”

Read the letter sent from Okalhoma City to Sheriff Whetsel

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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