This story is a part of Cell by Cell, The Frontier’s ongoing series tracking jail conditions and deaths in Oklahoma.
With low starting pay and difficult working conditions, the Oklahoma County jail has long struggled to keep detention officers. Jail leaders say the agency is always hiring.
The jail’s starting pay for detention officers is below what other law enforcement agencies in the state offer. The facility itself is deteriorating and has no shortage of design flaws that can make for dangerous interactions with inmates.
The turnover rate at the jail is high.
“It’s just a merry-go-round of employees who are always starting and quitting within three months, a very short period,” said Mark Myers, spokesman for the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office.
Though the sheriff’s office has funding for 450 positions at the jail, only 371 of those have been filled, said Maj. Brandon Holmes, the administrative bureau commander at the jail.
To keep the jail running, the agency has had to rely heavily on detention officers working overtime.
In fiscal year 2018-2019, the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office spent $257,218 on 15,387 hours of overtime, according to data The Frontier obtained from the agency through an open records request. That’s almost 300 hours of overtime per week.
Holmes said although the sheriff’s office has had mandatory overtime in the past, it has now mostly been voluntary. He said employees often use overtime to supplement the low pay.
“We might have on-call sometimes, but by and large, majority 95 percent plus is voluntary,” he said.
Capt. Scott Sedbrook is an assistant jail administrator and has worked at the Oklahoma County jail for nearly 25 years. He said staffing has always been an issue.
“This job itself is very difficult. It’s not for everyone,” Sedbrook said. “We can hire a class of 100, but what you’ll see is people will start weeding themselves out.
“It seems like we attract employees initially, but the retention part is what we struggle with. It’s a job, you come in and immediately you’re the boss, and being the boss you have to enforce all the rules. We have a very young staff in here, and they’re trying to deal with an inmate population that has cycled itself out multiple times.”
In fiscal year 2017-2018, the turnover rate at the jail was about 45 percent, Holmes said.
The Oklahoma County jail pays new detention officers about $29,750 per year before taxes,
Meanwhile, the nearby Cleveland County jail starts detention officers at $31,000 per year.
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections pays new officers about $30,221 each year, DOC spokesman Matt Elliott said in an email. And in Tulsa County, officers begin at $29,436 per year, said Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Casey Roebuck.
“It’s definitely lower,” Holmes said of Oklahoma County’s starting pay. “Even 7-Eleven, for example, a nighttime cashier makes more money.”
Holmes said the agency does offer cost-of-living salary adjustments and benefits that are hard to beat, but it still can’t compete with other law enforcement agencies in the state that offer significant annual raises.
The jail often attracts young detention officers who aren’t yet enticed by the agency’s good health insurance and retirement plan, Sedbrook said.
Myers said the condition of the jail also factors into the turnover rate. The troubled facility has been riddled with problems since it opened in 1991.
The architecture firm that designed the facility had never worked on a jail before and drew up the plans as it would for a typical office building, with details such as dropped ceilings that can be used to hide contraband.
Cement columns create blind spots for detention officers, and unlike most jails and prisons, the facility’s cell doors do not have food tray slots, forcing staff to come face-to-face with inmates when they serve meals.
The Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office recorded 254 case of inmates assaulting corrections officers in 2018, The Frontier previously reported.
Myers said he hopes a newly-formed jail trust might address some of the jail’s most pressing issues. The Oklahoma County County Commissioners in May established the nine-member trust to provide oversight for the jail’s operations and finances. Structural and staffing problems are among the priorities trust members have discussed.
“The hope is with the trust in place, we can find a mechanism for funding,” Myers said.
Oklahoma County is the only county in the state that does not have a designated sales tax to fund corrections, Myers said.
“That has been the biggest issue in funding the jail,” he said. “In the next year or two, the hope is to … be able to build up public momentum to start looking at a way to properly fund our facility.”
The jail is looking to hire 50 people.
“If the public really knew how difficult this job was and the amazing job our staff does with a small amount of resources and the working conditions, instead of criticizing they would praise us,” Sedbrook said. “It’s a very difficult job to do. Corrections is the hardest part of law enforcement.”
Frontier reporter Brianna Bailey contributed to this report.