Cell by Cell: Oklahoma County jail’s poor design contributes to safety, security issues

Since 2016, 35 inmates have died at the Oklahoma County jail.

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The door of an empty cell in the Oklahoma County Jail. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier
Since 2016, 35 inmates have died at the Oklahoma County jail. The poor design of the building has likely contributed to that problem.

In each two-tiered jail pod, a guard sits in glassed-in room overlooking the area—but the guard can’t see into every cell. There’s only a small, rectangular window at the top of each heavy metal cell door.

The guards are required to do hourly sight checks on each cell, but a lot can happen in the span of 60 minutes.

“Sometimes, you can have a situation where they have a stroke or a heart attack or they time it after the sight check if they want to commit suicide,” Mark Opgrande,  a spokesman for the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office, said.

By the time a guard finds an inmate unresponsive in their cell, it’s often too late.

“They have to wait another hour for an officer to come around again,” said Sgt. Ziakiya Byers.

The story goes that on the day the facility opened, the first words out of then-Sheriff J.D. Sharp’s mouth after a tour of the jail were something to the effect of “absolutely not.” And it’s easy to see why — the Oklahoma County Detention Center has been plagued with security issues since it opened in 1991. The architectural firm that designed the facility had never built a jail before and built it like any office building — with features like cheap drop ceilings.

An empty pod in the Oklahoma County Jail. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Inmates have ripped out the metal ceiling frames and fashioned them into swords and knives. They can also hide contraband inside the ceiling tiles. Large cement columns in the pods create visibility issues and are an easy place for inmates to hide with a weapon.

The county is preparing to spend at least a few million dollars to install new locks on a few floors of the jail. The existing lock system is easy for the inmates to jam open with just a piece of paper or even a spork.

Unlike most other modern jails and prisons, there are no food slots in the cell doors in Oklahoma County, so guards have to open the doors to have face-to face interactions with the inmates to serve meals.

Sometimes, detention officers are met with a punch in the face — or worse.

In 2018, the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office documented 254 case of inmates assaulting corrections officers, Opgrande said.

“That’s once every day-and-a-half that someone gets assaulted in here,” he said.

There were and additional 110 cases of inmate-on inmate assault last year.

Funding questions 

Construction of the Oklahoma County jail in the early 90s was funded by a temporary penny sales tax to build the $52-million, problem-riddled facility. But there was no new, permanent source of revenue to totally pay for the maintenance and upkeep of the jail after the sales tax expired.

There’s still an official “Jail Facility Fund” on the county’s books, but it only had about $26,000 in it last year, according to the county’s 2018-2019 budget.

Revenue for the small maintenance fund comes from unpaid sales taxes from property tax liens when real estate is sold.

The nearly 30-year old jail now has about $22 million in deferred maintenance needs, Opgrande said.

“The question is, do you want to continue to throw money at this place,” he said. “You could just spend millions and millions of dollars on this place.”

The rest of the funding for the jail comes from sheriff’’s office fines and fees and about $37 million in county appropriations. Each year, funding for the sheriff’s office takes up about 35 percent of the county’s entire budget, mostly because of the jail.

Oklahoma County is the only county in the state that does not have a dedicated sales tax for county operations, said Carrie Blumert, District 1 Oklahoma County Commissioner.

“We rely on your property taxes,” she said.

Blumert ran for office in 2018 on a platform of criminal justice reform and wants to see the county build a new jail.

An open-air basketball court sits mostly unused on the 13th floor of the Oklahoma County Jail. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

“When that jail was built, There was no thought for people dealing with chronic illness, addiction and mental illness — there was no thought for any of that.” Blumert said.

At the Oklahoma County jail, mental health workers have nowhere to do evaluations on inmates except outside cells. There’s also no dedicated mental health pod, just some cells reserved for the people with the highest need who need the most supervision.

The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber would be the proponent of any ballot measure to raise tax revenue for a new jail.

Public support for any new taxes to build a jail was low the last time the chamber did some internal polling on the issue a few years ago, said Roy Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber.

While Williams believes an increased public interest in criminal justice reform over the past few years has changed the political environment somewhat, it’s still going to take time to fund any new jail plans.

“We don’t believe the solution is going to voters right now,” Williams said.

An empty pod in the Oklahoma County Jail. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

In 2016, the chamber partnered with The Vera Institute of Justice to come up with new policies to reduce the Oklahoma County jail population. The resulting recommendations, which include keeping people charged with low-level offenses out of the jail, are working to keep the jail population down.

However, the new policies haven’t fixed the larger safety and security issues at the jail.

“You don’t fix criminal justice by building a new building,” Williams said. “We don’t want people to think building a new jail will solve criminal justice issues.”

A subcommittee of the chamber-backed Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Task Force is working now to finalize recommendations on what kind of new jail facilities the county needs. These recommendations will mark the first step towards coming up with any sort of funding plan for a new jail, Williams said.

“The voters have been burned in before and here we are 30 years later,” Williams said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do to make sure we get this right. We can’t fail the voters again.”

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Brianna Bailey

Brianna Bailey grew up in Idaho. Oklahoma is her adopted home. Bailey has covered issues ranging from Oklahoma's strained child welfare system to the slow decline of Oklahoma's rural hospitals. She has walked all the way across Oklahoma City twice, once north-to south via Western Avenue and once via the old U.S. Route 66. Her hobbies are baking and crashing meetings she isn't invited to attend. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from The University of Oklahoma. Email her at brianna@readfrontier.com
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