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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

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