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.
“We're just kind of waiting on their (the DOJ's) final stance, I think, and then that will kind of give us the direction that we need to go,” said Ray Vaughn, commission chairman and a proponent of building a new jail.
Commissioner Brian Maughan, who opposes the new jail idea, has suggested looking for ways to expand the current jail — built in 1991 — while making more use of alternative sentencing programs to ease jail crowding. He also has said the county should make the DOJ force its hand before moving forward with any potential fixes.
That approach carries some risk. If the feds were to take over the jail, the price tag for any upgrades would surely be greater than those now on the table. And in that scenario, the costs would be borne by county property owners through increased ad valorem taxes over a three-year span.
Perhaps that's unlikely; the DOJ has reacted favorably to remediation efforts thus far. But is it worth the risk? A federal resolution is the last thing we need.
The decision can't be put off indefinitely. County voters should be asked if they'll pay for a new or remodeled jail. If the answer is no, so be it. At least it would be an answer.
This really is everyone's problem.