This story is a part of Cell by Cell, a project to track every jail death in Oklahoma and examine jail conditions.
The responsibility of inspecting each of the 131 county jails and city lockups that are sprawled across Oklahoma falls on 1.5 employees.
The Oklahoma State Department of Health Jail Inspection Division is charged with inspecting all detention facilities in the state, a duty that was once done by four employees. Now, the agency has only one full-time and one part-time employee doing the job.
James Joslin is the assistant deputy director of protective health services at the department and oversees the jail inspection division. He said with fewer inspectors, it has been difficult to complete surveys and address complaints and critical incidents in a timely manner.
“Our responsiveness is certainly diminished,” Joslin said.
State law requires the division to inspect jails at least once per year. If a complaint is made against a facility or a critical incident occurs — such as a death — those must be followed up on, too. In those cases, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation will also often investigate.
When the department had four inspectors they were able to visit jails more frequently, especially those that had an abundance of problems, Joslin said. But recently, those duties have been harder to keep up with.
In the last year, the agency fell behind on the mandate to inspect some jails annually, but the division has caught up again, Joslin said.
When the division receives an allegation of serious health or safety issues, the goal is to visit the facility within 10 days, but that doesn’t always happen, Joslin said.
The department is in the process of hiring another part-time inspector to help with the workload.
When a jail is cited for a violation, inspectors provide jail administrators a report that includes suggestions for how the problems could be fixed. Facilities are required to fix the problems within 60 days, but sometimes inspectors aren’t able re-inspect the jail that soon.
“Our practice now is to do a revisit when we can or next time we get out there,” Joslin said. “It might be during the next inspection or sometime when we work a complaint or if we’re in the area.”
If the issues aren’t fixed in the allotted time, the division gives them another notice and the jail administrator must give inspectors a plan of action.
As the state’s jails continue to age, a large portion of the violations stem from crumbling infrastructure, Joslin said. Another common issue is health care. Detention facilities have varying methods of delivering it — some jails contract with health care providers, while others use local doctors or jail staff.
Inspectors also are tasked with determining whether inmates with mental health problems are getting proper care.
“Jails certainly face numerous challenges in managing mental health populations,” Joslin said.
Jails and prisons have long been the de facto health care providers for people with mental illnesses. Inspectors must ensure those inmates are properly housed and segregated from the general population, and that inmates are getting the right health screenings.
“So our inspectors are making an evaluation on that, but then again my inspectors aren’t mental health providers either,” Joslin said.
Though jail inspectors are tasked with inspecting and citing deficiencies in facilities, its authority for penalizing them is limited.
State law allows the division to file a complaint with the county’s district attorney or state attorney general, but Joslin, who has been at the agency for seven years, said that hasn’t happened.
In the past, referrals to the attorney general or district attorney could only be for suggestions to close the jail, Joslin said. However, a change in state law that went into effect Nov. 1, 2018, might give jail inspectors more control in ensuring jails meet state standards.
The division can now turn to the district attorney, attorney general or the governing body of the facility for assistance in obtaining compliance. However the law still requires inspectors to take into consideration whether jail administrators are making a “good-faith effort” to fix the problems.
“The question persists, what is a good faith effort, and how long do you allow that good faith effort to persist without trying to elevate things,” Joslin said.
The division does not issue fines for deficiencies.
“It’s obviously fining another government, so that’s problematic in itself,” Joslin said. “We’re taking resources from a government instead of them putting money into resources to fix the problem.”