A positive audit by a national jail accreditation group legitimizes a five-year program to improve operations at the county jail, Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel said Tuesday.
Accreditation by American Correctional Association is a first for the county and means less liability for lawsuits and another step toward full compliance with U.S. Department of Justice standards, Whetsel said.
“This accreditation is a testament to the professionalism and hard work of our employees,” he said. “Under the leadership of (jail administrator) Maj. Jack Herron, our employees have transformed our jail into an exemplary example, a benchmark for detention centers on the national level.”
Whetsel said the county has worked for years to address dozens of operational deficiencies outlined by the Justice Department in 2007. While significant facility deficiencies remain, he said, the new accreditation marks compliance with the operational ones.
Whetsel told The Oklahoman in April that his office has injected upward of $10 million into capital improvements at the facility since the federal department issued its findings.
Among steps taken: About 60 new jailers and other staff were hired and a bar code system now computerizes hourly inmate sight checks. The facility has also initiated an inmate security classification system, and a new camera system allows jail staff to monitor most of the facility remotely.
The sheriff's department also brought on a new medical contractor, which initiated an electronic medical record system and enacted new urgent care and assessment policies, Whetsel said.
He said Tuesday the office may be “just weeks away” from receiving national accreditation for its health and mental health care operations.
“The only thing we have left yet now are the facilities. At this time, an architectural firm is reviewing space requirements, need, cost estimates and other information before making a recommendation on remodeling the current jail or recommending a new one.”
Oklahoma County in February approved a contract with a Georgia firm to develop a concept for a new jail, which at an estimated cost of $300 million would address the remaining facility deficiencies outlined by the Justice Department.
Problems with escapes, inmate deaths and suicides led to the Justice Department's inquiry. County elected officials in 2008 signed a memorandum of understanding, agreeing to address or resolve 60 deficiencies by 2015.
Whetsel said the new operations accreditation will last for three years, and then the county will seek reaccreditation. Currently the jail in Tulsa County is the only other jail in Oklahoma to receive the correctional association's stamp of approval.
Whetsel said accreditation means jail officials will have constant contact with the American Correctional Association.
“There will also be annual reporting regarding compliance with standards, updated plans for actions and significant events review,” he said. “The ACA will also conduct regular audits of our facility.”
But critics have questioned the reliability of the audit. Some complain the cost — as much as $3,000 per day and as much as $1,500 per auditor, according to one report — amounts to “pay-for-play.”
A 2001 report by The Boston Globe claimed American Correctional Association was accused of allowing prison and jail administrators to “buy a seal of approval that serves to inflate the reputations of the facilities, cushion them against lawsuits and fend off regulation.”