Oklahoma County officials hope a new jail will be safer and more cost-effective after voters approved a $260-million bond to help finance construction, ending years of debate over whether there was enough public support to replace the county’s aging facility. 

But the bond won’t completely cover the construction of the new detention center, which is projected to cost around $300 million.  

The impact of inflation and supply chain issues are lingering questions, as is the wait to see how the county may use its share of federal relief money from the American Rescue Plan Act to cover the rest of the cost. And community organizers who opposed the bond vote say they will continue putting pressure on officials for broader criminal justice reforms.

“We’re not going anywhere,” said Sean Cummings, a city councilor from The Village and organizer with the group People’s Council for Justice Reform, which opposed building a new jail. 

“We’re going to keep putting pressure on them, the same thing we’ve been doing,” he said. 

Over 59% of voters approved the bond in the June 28 election to build a replacement for the existing jail just west of downtown Oklahoma City, where detainees die at high rates and safety issues have persisted for three decades. The bond faced opposition from some criminal justice reform activists who wanted county officials to spend money on mental health treatment, bail reform and other community programs to lower incarceration before building a new, smaller jail.

Oklahoma County officials and the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council, which is backed by the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, said the passage of the bond is validation of work done in recent years to convince voters that the jail has serious problems that must be addressed with a new facility, and that the county can be trusted to oversee the process. 

With federal COVID-19 relief money possibly available to help cover some of the costs and existing county bonds set to expire, officials felt like it was the right time to ask voters for a new jail, said Timothy Tardibono, director of the Criminal Justice Advisory Council

“We’re walking into this really cognizant of the past and the fact that people, 30 years later, are still angry about how (the jail) was botched before. So we have a premium on transparency and accountability,” Tardibono said. “We’ve always said it’s a ‘both and’ solution. It’s not a ‘fix the jail and we walk away.’” 

But Cummings said the jail still doesn’t have any dedicated source of ongoing funding after the bond issue, unlike most other counties in the state, which could contribute to future maintenance backlogs. He’s also concerned that the county could face federal clawbacks if it uses COVID-19 relief money to help construct anything related to the jail. U.S. Treasury guidelines forbid federal American Rescue Plan Act money from being used to construct jails, though county officials say they believe they could use their share of the money to build a stand-alone mental health facility close to the jail or use it to cover allowable general expenses to free up other, unrestricted sources of funding. 

As the bond vote approached, community organizers held forums to discuss shortcomings they saw with the proposal, including the potential for costs to balloon, the larger size of the jail, and management issues they say won’t be fixed with a new facility.

Oklahoma County’s existing maximum-security, 13-story jail has had a long history of mold, pest infestations, overcrowding, contraband and staff shortages since the building opened in 1991. The jail is under the supervision of the federal government, and the Oklahoma State Department of Health has repeatedly cited the facility for health and safety violations.

In 2020, Oklahoma County officials shifted the jail’s management from the sheriff’s office to a public trust, hoping for reform. Over the past two years, the jail trust has highlighted progress in reducing the practice of housing more than two people in a single cell, as well as installing new locks and updating heating and air systems, but problems have persisted. Ten prisoners have so far died in the facility this year.  

“People with power and elected officials have to understand that this (bond) proposal isn’t enough,” said aurelius francisco, an organizer with No New Jail Oklahoma. “So many people don’t want a bigger jail and don’t want jail to be the only response to the issues our communities face. And it’s their responsibility as people with power to hear those voices and bring about changes in ways that don’t continue just the status quo.”

County officials are creating a citizens advisory board to oversee the design and construction of the facility, and early plans show proposals for the new facility to include courtrooms, dedicated space for diversion and education programs, an updated medical and mental health treatment space and a modernized intake and booking center. 

Preliminary plans include options for a one- or two-level building with space for a mix of 1,800 minimum, medium and maximum-security beds. But the final design, location and timeline for construction haven’t been finalized yet. 

Ideally, county officials want a 22-acre to 45-acre site within a 10-minute drive from downtown.

Commissioner Brian Maughan said it will be next year before the county can sell the bonds and begin acquiring a new property for the future jail.

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