WOODWARD — The six men on the other side of the bars — already packed into the small cell — warned the guard not to try to wedge in another inmate.
They told her it was too crowded. They told her what they'd do to the man if she didn't listen.
She put him in the cell anyway.
She returned a short time later to find the man almost beaten to death.
Hundreds of state Health Department complaint investigation reports reviewed by The Oklahoman reveal that many county jails face overcrowding that in some cases leads to violence.
In other instances, jails run low on the most basic necessities, including toilet paper, shower shoes and jumpsuits. At one jail, women were required to turn in used sanitary napkins before receiving new ones.
The reports also show the jails suffer from filthy, dungeonlike conditions, and like state-run prisons struggle with contraband and low employee morale. Funding is a constant problem, and relations are increasingly tense between jail administrators and the state Corrections Department, which uses the jails to house its overflow of state prisoners.
The issues confronting county jails come at a time when Oklahoma lawmakers are debating the future of the state prison system. Some lawmakers are calling for more relaxed sentencing standards in an effort to reduce overcrowding while others are urging continuation of the state's tough-on-crime policies that have propelled Oklahoma to one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation.
To complicate matters, the public seems uninterested in solving the problems. The prison population garners little sympathy from voters, said John Judge, who heads the state Health Department's Jail Inspection Division.
“The citizens, you know, they figure they're overtaxed enough,” Judge said. “Trying to get a bond to build a new jail, trying to fix what they have wrong in their jails now ... people just aren't open to having their taxes increased for individuals who are incarcerated.”
‘Inmates are not given more toilet paper when they run out'
Of all the daunting problems facing Oklahoma's county jails today, none is more pressing and more publicized than the issue of overcrowding, those involved say.
In the Woodward case, for example, investigators found that at the time of the beating the jail in the small northwestern Oklahoma town was housing 64 inmates. The jail's maximum occupancy is 41. The cell where the beating occurred is supposed to house only three inmates. Six were in the cell when a guard sought to add another.
According to state records, the jailer told the inmates that the new inmate would “only be in the cell for a few minutes until jail staff found another place to put him.”
By the time the jailer reached the end of the hall, she heard a commotion coming from the cell. She returned to find the new inmate slouched in the cell with two inmates standing over him. The badly beaten inmate was taken to the emergency room where he was treated for a concussion, broken cheekbones and “a blowout fracture of the orbital bone,” a state inspection found.
The beating was so severe that the inmate claimed that he lost feeling in his face due to nerve damage.
The jailer, who was not named in the report, admitted the inmates in the cell “told her that they would beat up (the victim) if she put him in the cell with them because the cell was already overcrowded,” a state investigator wrote.
Violence isn't the only problem overcrowding creates.
During an annual inspection of the 128-bed Ottawa County jail in northeast Oklahoma in September 2011, an inspector found inmates sleeping on the floor, some on torn and dirty mats, others without mattresses.
The jail's administrator told the inspector he had no extra mattresses and blankets — and even walked her to the supply closet to show her.
He blamed overcrowding.
The inspector also discovered that inmates lacked adequate access to towels and that some wore shower shoes that were torn and sewn together with treads from the inmates' towels.
In Bryan County, one of the poorest counties in the state, complaints filed by relatives of inmates underscore the financial strain many jails deal with on a daily basis.
During a Feb. 15, 2012, inspection at the Bryan County jail in Durant, a state Health Department investigator wrote that the jail administrator was requiring female inmates to turn over used sanitary napkins in order to get new ones.
“The jail administrator stated that the women use the sanitary napkins to make (sex toys) and he was not going to provide incarcerated females the opportunity for self satisfaction,” the inspector wrote in the report. “In order for the inmates to get new sanitary napkins, the used sanitary napkin has to be provided to prove they are in need of a new one.”
During the same visit, it also was discovered that the jail would only give inmates one roll of toilet paper per week.
“Inmates are not given more toilet paper when they run out,” the report states. “They are required to wait until the next time toilet paper is handed out.”
‘Tensions sometimes flare between DOC and the county sheriff's offices'
When a prisoner is sentenced by a district judge to a term in prison, it could be days or months before the inmate is transferred from a county jail to the state prison system.
With state prisons just as overcrowded as the facilities that feed into them, the so-called county jail backlog issue has become a major point of friction between the state Corrections Department and sheriffs across Oklahoma.
According to state Corrections Department figures released Tuesday, 1,689 inmates sentenced to state prison remain incarcerated in county jails.
Over the past decade, these inmates have become more and more of a problem for county jail administrators, many of whom have complained about the issue for years.
A recent incident involving inmates from Canadian County demonstrates how icy things have become.
According to Oklahoma law, the state Corrections Department must take custody of inmates awaiting transfer to state prison within three days if the counties demand they do so.
But state prison officials have said recently they have little room to take on additional inmates, noting their facilities are nearly 100 percent full.
Canadian County Sheriff Randall Edwards said he recently invoked the 72-hour rule, but corrections officials rejected his request. That caused a standoff of sorts outside a Cleveland County prison.
Edwards said his deputies used a bus to take a group of 17 state inmates to a state prison reception center in Lexington, only to be turned away. He said he told his deputies to “offload them at the front gate and leave them there.”
“Tensions sometimes flare between DOC and the county sheriff's offices,” Edwards said. “When they said they weren't going to take 'em, I said, ‘Yeah, you are going to take 'em.'”
After calls to administrators with the state Corrections Department, Edwards said the inmates were eventually admitted by prison staff. The situation, even several weeks later, left a bad taste in the sheriff's mouth.
“When you follow all the guidelines, policies and procedures required by law ... you shouldn't have had to go through the trouble to do all that,” Edwards said. “Our bus was tied up, we got into an argument with DOC, and they hung up on my under sheriff, which was totally unprofessional.”
Judge, the state jail inspector, said the nonstop movement of inmates into and out of county jails makes the problem a hard one for county sheriffs to tackle.
Even the Pottawatomie County jail, which is known in central Oklahoma for housing inmates from other counties, has struggled with overcrowding in recent months.
“It could be overcrowded today, and tomorrow they could transfer some inmates out to DOC and they're back down below their maximum capacity ... it's not static,” Judge said. “It makes it hard on the jails ... because a lot of these increases and decreases in inmate population are out of their control.”
In 2012, the Oklahoma Corrections Department paid counties more than $21 million to house inmates awaiting transfer to state prisons, the most ever.
By law, the state Corrections Department must pay $27 for each day an inmate is housed in a county jail after sentencing, including qualifying medical expenses.
But some counties' elected officials don't think that's enough.
In June 2012, the Bryan County Board of Commissioners filed a lawsuit against the state Corrections Department over the per diem rates paid by the state agency to house prison-bound inmates in county jails.
Just a few weeks ago, Tulsa County Sherriff Stanley Glanz asked a judge to order the state Corrections Department to remove inmates from the county jail once they are sentenced. At the time of the legal action, the state's second-largest jail had been overcrowded for 122 consecutive days.
Former Bryan County Sheriff Bill Sturch, who retired in January, often complained about how slowly the state Corrections Department collected inmates sentenced to prison time. Sturch said judges are handing out lengthier prison sentences these days and called the per diem rate “a common concern” among sheriffs in Oklahoma.
Sturch said the per diem rate, set by law in 2007, is insufficient.
“We charge $40 per day to house inmates from Durant and surrounding communities,” he said. “We just feel like the state should at least pay the same.”
‘It doesn't look to change much, but that's what we're used to dealing with'
At the root of the problems facing county jails — and even those of the state Corrections Department — is a lack of money.
A review of records at the state Health Department's jail inspection division reveals that a lack of money can lead to filthy, often dungeonlike conditions.
Plumbing issues haunt the Oklahoma County jail, recently causing problems in the facility's kitchen that led to cold meals for days.
Cells in the tiny Cotton County jail were secured with padlocks.
Some of the locks have since been replaced, jail inspection records show, but until just a few months ago, every cell in the Cotton County jail had to be unlocked manually by a jailer.
Records show that guards would walk around with a large ring of keys like jailers of yesteryear.
In Greer County, in far southwestern Oklahoma, Sheriff Devin Huckabay complains of a lack of help. His department consists of himself and one other deputy, and he said he could use two or three more for his nearly century-old jail in Mangum.
“We usually have just one jailer per shift, which we're supposed to have two by state law,” Huckabay said. “We have dispatcher in the building, and they let us count that as a jailer also.”
Greer County's male inmates are jammed into large, dormitory-style cells. Women at the jail spend their days in a room that resembles an old bank vault.
During a recent tour of the jail, Huckabay talked about wanting to improve the facility but said there is little hope, especially for small, poor counties like his. Greer County has about 6,300 residents.
“We get by with what we get,” the sheriff said. “It doesn't look to change much, but that's what we're used to dealing with.”
CONTRIBUTING: Staff Writer Phillip O'Connor