Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of jail trust meetings that Oklahoma County Sheriff P.D. Taylor has attended.

Before daybreak, Pablo Daniel Robledo and Jose Balentin Hernandez squeezed through a broken window in their cell on the 12th floor of the Oklahoma County Detention Center on July 31 and used a 100-foot long rope made of jail bedsheets to climb down the side of the building.  

The stakes were high for both men. Hernandez was facing charges of first-degree rape, burglary and indecent exposure. Robledo was awaiting trial for first-degree murder. 

State law mandates hourly visual checks on jail arrestees, but detention officers weren’t aware that at least one of the men was missing until alerted by Oklahoma City police more than an hour after they left their cell, according to law enforcement reports on the incident. 

A passerby reported a bleeding man who appeared to be trying to break into a pickup truck parked across the street from the jail. That’s where Oklahoma City police discovered Hernandez hiding under a trailer, covered in cuts and scrapes. Robledo was arrested later the same day about six miles away from the jail. 

Larry Grant, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 155, which used to represent detention officers at the jail until a public trust took over operations, said he believes the escape speaks to a lack of basic security and staffing levels at the jail that are now dangerously low. 

“My personal opinion is that it’s gonna blow,” Grant said. “Sooner or later the inmates are going to start using this to their advantage.” 

The jailbreak came one month after Oklahoma County Sheriff P.D. Taylor handed control of the detention center to a public trust he says was ill-prepared for the job despite more than a year of planning for the transition. 

The county lacks a dedicated source of tax revenue to fund jail operations. The sheriff’s office has long said it needed more funding to properly handle the job.

“My fear is they’re going to put the county into financial ruins because of not knowing what they’re doing,” Taylor said. 

But jail trust officials claim Taylor slowed down purchasing and hiring before he left, leaving the facility in disarray. 

Records show state health inspectors cited the Detention Center in February for sanitation issues that included bed bugs, mold and mildew and accumulations of trash on some floors, when the jail was under the control of the sheriff’s office.  

The Oklahoma Disability Law Center, which has legal authority to monitor and investigate facilities on behalf of people with disabilities, also began raising concerns last year about the treatment of people with mental illness at the jail under the sheriff’s watch. 

The Oklahoma County Jail in Oklahoma City. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

“The sheriff had the jail taken away from him. And he didn’t want that,” said jail trust member Ben Brown. “The county commissioners created the trust and they didn’t do it because the jail was operating so well.” 

Now the jail’s overcrowding and staffing shortages have been further exacerbated by the coronavirus.

In a contentious budget meeting on Thursday, county officials voted to recommend pouring $42 million in federal relief funds from the CARES Act into the jail for wages and benefits, infrastructure repairs and to combat the spread of the virus. The funding was approved over protests from Oklahoma County Treasurer Forrest Freeman, who said he was unsure whether transferring the money to the jail was a legal use of relief funds. 

Jail trust board member Sue Ann Arnall made a plea for funding at the meeting and described a mounting crisis at the detention center where arrestees were stacked three and four to a cell. The virus has paused court proceedings. On Monday, more than 350 inmates who had already been sentenced were awaiting transfer to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. 

“The front door is wide open and the back door is cracked,” Arnall said. 

Paradigm shift

When the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority took control of the jail on July 1, it was hailed as the beginning of a paradigm shift in the community towards providing more opportunities for mental health and addiction treatment and make the jail safer, cleaner and more efficient. 

“We want to be a part of the bigger cultural change,” said Tricia Everest, chairwoman of the jail trust. 

His first week on the job, Jail Administrator Greg Willams held town-hall meetings with arrestees and said his goal was to talk to each one and let them know he cared. 

“They need somebody sometimes to just give them a helping hand and some encouragement,” he said in a Facebook video.

More than a month after the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority took control of the jail, the trust lacks a website and jail administrators still haven’t updated their voicemail greetings from the sheriff’s office staff they replaced. Arrestees have complained about delays in food service and problems with roaches and bed bugs. The sheriff’s office still fields daily complaints about the facility, because people don’t know who else to call, Taylor said. 

 The Oklahoma City Police Department said it has moved all of its employees out of the jail and back to police headquarters over concerns about the low staffing levels at the jail. 

Williams said in an interview with The Frontier on Monday that 28 jail staff were on leave after testing positive for COVID-19 and 93 inmates had tested positive.

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

The jail only tested about 50 people for the virus under the sheriff’s office, according to Williams. But the sheriff’s office disputes that number and said it tested closer to 200 people.  When the virus first hit Oklahoma this spring, the CDC recommended only testing people who were symptomatic, sheriff’s office spokesman Mark Myers said. 

Williams said the sheriff’s office also slowed down hiring new detention officers and some purchasing before the transition and also hadn’t adequately treated the jail for bed bugs. The jail even lacked enough mattresses for all arrestees when he arrived, he said. 

The sheriff’s office also didn’t leave the jail trust with street-worthy vehicles to transport inmates, Brown said. 

“We’re finding plenty to improve on and plenty of work to do,” Williams said. 

Taylor says he has never spoken to Williams for more than a few minutes in passing. He also says he never had any sit-down meetings with the new administrator before handing over the jail, but he claims he offered. 

The sheriff’s office provided The Frontier with records showing it continued to hire and train detention officers through June, although Everest says a few training academies were skipped during the transition process. 

The jail typically turns over about 40 staffers each month, making continuous recruiting and training essential, she said. 

Although Taylor sits on the jail trust, he has only attended one meeting and has instead opted to send his attorney, Everest said. Jail trust staff have had numerous meetings with other sheriff’s office personnel leading up to the transition.

“He (Sheriff Taylor) has had ample opportunity to to be a part of the process and he has chosen not to,” she said. 

A history of problems at the jail

The jail trust has inherited a poorly designed, 30-year old facility with more than $20 million in deferred maintenance. 

Raw sewage has periodically flooded parts of the building due to faulty plumbing.

In July,  Black Lives Matter protester Jess Eddy rolled up his shirt sleeves to show a local television news crew red bed bug bites covering his arms from an 18-hour stay at the jail after being arrested during a sit-in at District Attorney David Prater’s office.

Taylor says his office regularly treated the jail for bed bugs under his watch, but records show state health inspectors found evidence of an infestation in February and cited the jail for failing to produce adequate documentation showing regular treatment from a professional exterminator. 

The sheriff’s office provided The Frontier with records of extermination services over the past three years. Many of the treatments in 2020 were purchased from Home Depot, although the sheriff’s office did pay a commercial exterminator to treat 53 mattresses at the jail for bed bugs in June. 

In 2019, the Oklahoma Disability Law Center launched an investigation of the jail’s treatment of people with mental illness. The protection and advocacy group began looking into the issues after the suicide of 29-year old Krysten Gonzalez in January 2019. Gonzalez was being held at the jail while awaiting placement in a mental health treatment program. After Gonzalez’s death, the judge who presides over Oklahoma County’s mental health court declared that the jail was unsafe for program participants. 

Oklahoma Disability Law Center staff inspected the jail and interviewed arrestees who told stories of being stripped naked while on suicide watch. Investigators found the jail was dirty and and lacked suicide smocks that fit larger, taller arrestees, forcing some to sit completely nude in their cells, said Joy Turner, director of investigations and monitoring for the organization.

Jail staff only spent between four and six minutes screening arrestees for mental health issues and also failed to follow up about what medications arrestees had previously been prescribed for mental health diagnoses, the investigation found. 

Turner and other representatives of the Oklahoma Disability Law Center met with Taylor and sheriff’s office staff in December 2019.  Jail administrators said they would order more suicide smocks, but didn’t promise much else, she said. 

“I would not say that they were overly receptive to what we had to say,” she said. 

Turner  said she personally handed release forms to Taylor at the meeting in order to obtain medical records for Oklahoma Disability Law Center’s clients at the jail, but the organization didn’t receive the documents until March 2020. 

By the time Oklahoma Disability Law Center received and reviewed the medical records of 23 clients at the jail, the sheriff’s office was getting ready to hand the jail over to the new administrator. 

“We all know the jail trust was coming, and perhaps there was some delay on their part to get us those records,” Turner said.