Vote on Oklahoma County jail can't be put off indefinitely

The Oklahoman Editorial Published: March 14, 2013

THE Oklahoma County jail can hold about 2,400 inmates. It stays full most of the time. Yet the number of county residents who have a friend or relative locked up is small.

Consequently, most locals don't much care whether the building is too crowded or structurally inadequate. It's not their problem.

These sentiments were no doubt reflected in a survey that sought to gauge voters' interest in a half-cent sales tax to pay for a new jail. Oklahoma County commissioners had considered putting that question on a ballot this spring. They changed their minds after looking at results of the survey, conducted by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber.

Now the strategy is to ask the U.S. Justice Department to ease off or abandon its threat to take over the jail if improvements aren't made. The threat came in 2008 after the DOJ cited the jail for five dozen civil rights violations, including everything from “unconscionable violence” among the inmates and between guards and inmates, to unsanitary conditions and poor record-keeping.

Fifty-six of the 60 violations have been remedied. Jail officials say the remaining four can only be addressed by building a new facility or making significant renovations to the existing jail. The least expensive of the three options — renovating the current jail, including an annex — would cost $259 million according to a consulting firm. Building a new jail, which was the consulting group's recommendation, would cost $281 million.

That's a slight improvement over the $330 million estimate of a year ago, when county commissioners voted 2-1 to pursue construction of a new jail. At the time, they hoped to ask county voters in 2013 for a halfpenny sales tax for four to five years to pay for construction, followed by a quarter-cent sales tax to cover maintenance and operations. Now it's all on hold.

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