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Oklahoma's county jails face myriad problems, reports show

by Andrew Knittle Modified: September 8, 2013 at 10:00 pm •  Published: September 8, 2013

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.

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by Andrew Knittle
Investigative Reporter
Andrew Knittle has covered state water issues, tribal concerns and major criminal proceedings during his career as an Oklahoma journalist. He has won reporting awards from the state's Associated Press bureau and prides himself on finding a real...
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