Family members and a former staff member say they repeatedly asked for Parker Stephens to be moved to a mental health unit at the jail before he died at the Oklahoma County Detention Center. 

A detention officer found the 21-year old dead in his cell on Feb. 3. Family members say staff from the medical examiner’s office and the jail told them there was evidence the death was a suicide.

Stephens’ mother Shannon Stephens and his aunt Stacie Dasovich say they left messages at the detention center’s administrative offices dozens of times in the months leading up to his death.

“I was adamant — yelling somebody better do something, because he’s going to commit suicide,” Dasovich said. 

Oklahoma County Detention Center Administrator Greg Williams said the jail is still waiting for the medical examiner’s office to make a final determination on whether Stephens died by suicide.

In written responses to The Frontier’s questions, Williams said Stephens was housed in the jail’s mental health pod for a period of time, but the unit is only intended to house prisoners who pose a threat to themselves or others based on a mental health diagnosis. 

“It had been over six months since Mr. Stephens had made an action or statement that would warrant that kind of placement,” Williams wrote  “Mental health providers must evaluate symptoms immediately present, and cannot evaluate detainees based on past actions or statements.” 

Williams also said he had no records of requests from Stephens’ family or any other reasons to consider moving him back to the mental health pod. 

“I have no record of a family request of medical staff for evaluation for this placement, or any statements to staff after his reassignment to general population that would have warranted an evaluation.”  

Williams said that the mental health needs of prisoners are not all alike and that not every prisoner with a mental health diagnosis needs to be in the mental health unit.  

“We strive to give detainees a sense of normalcy, and with voluntary medication compliance and counseling as ordered, they can feel like they are not stigmatized out of the gate,” he wrote.

The case highlights ongoing issues at the jail with staffing and providing adequate mental health care for prisoners, said Joy Turner, director of investigation and monitoring for the Oklahoma Disability Law Center. 

The protection and advocacy group has monitored conditions at the jail since 2019, when it was operated by the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office. It launched an investigation after the death of 29-year old Krysten Gonzales, who died by suicide at the jail while awaiting placement in a mental health treatment program. 

The organization found inadequate mental health screening and suicide prevention practices at the jail under the sheriff’s office. 

The trust that now runs the jail continues to struggle to recruit and retain detention officers. The lack of staff has hindered efforts to improve mental health care at the jail, Turner said. 

“I am distressed by the shortage of staffing at the detention center, and I believe that until they are adequately staffed, they will never be able to solve the issues that they’re having,” Turner said after Stephens’ death. “And we will continue to see these kinds of things in the newspaper.” 

Michael Wilson, who worked detention officer at the jail between January and June 2020, remembers Stephens from his rounds during the night shift on the eighth floor of the jail. Stephens was withdrawn and seemed to hear voices from people who weren’t there, Wilson recalls.  

“If you were walking by his cell, you would see him talking to himself,” Wilson said. 

Wilson said he asked his supervisors twice to transfer Stephens to the jail’s mental health unit, but no action was taken during the time he worked there. He doesn’t know why.

The jail’s staffing shortages made it difficult to address the mental health issues of any individual prisoner, he said. 

Wilson said he would often be alone in charge of four housing units with up to 400 inmates that make up an entire floor of the jail during a 12-hour night shift when he worked at the jail. 

In the event of an emergency, he had to wait for help to arrive from an officer who might have to rush from a different part of the 13-story building. Most of Wilson’s shifts were taken up with distributing meals and escorting a nurse to deliver medication to prisoners, he said. If a prisoner needed to visit the medical clinic, Wilson had to personally escort them to a different floor of the jail. 

“It was just so much ripping and running you’ve got to do and you’re there for 12 hours,” he said. 

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

The Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office operated the jail when Wilson worked there, but control of the facility shifted to the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority in July 2020.  

The sheriff’s office verified Wilson’s dates of employment, but said that inmate records were transferred to the jail’s new administration after it took over in July.

Shannon Stephens doesn’t like seeing her son’s jail booking photo that has accompanied news stories about his death. It’s from a sad period of his life when he was struggling with addiction and mental health problems. 

The jail photo doesn’t show the smart teenager who was named captain of his high school debate team or the 9-year old who kept a notebook filled with sketches and ideas for inventions. 

“He had a scholarship to any school that he wanted to go to, but unfortunately because of his mental illness he chose the wrong path,” Shannon Stephens said. “And that path led him to destructive behaviors.” 

At a memorial service that was streamed on Facebook, Stephens’ father proudly recalled how his son had played basketball and football and collected a record-breaking 1 million merit points from his church youth group for things like memorizing scripture and remembering to bring his Bible to class. 

Stephens began experimenting with drugs as a teenager. He started smoking pot and later tried methamphetamine.

Oklahoma City police arrested him in February 2020 after he allegedly stabbed a man who was washing his car in the parking lot of an Oklahoma City apartment complex. The victim told police he had seen Stephens around the complex before but the two men didn’t know one another. Stephens was also charged with manufacturing a controlled substance and possession of methamphetamine after police allegedly found evidence he was making the drug in his apartment. 

Family members decided against posting his $60,000 bond because they were worried he would attempt suicide once free, Dasovich said. 

Stephens’ public defender wrote in court documents that he was “unable to comprehend his attorney or to meaningfully assist” in his defense and requested that he undergo a mental health evaluation. 

Jail staff reported Stephens had been diagnosed with anxiety disorder, unspecified psychosis, unspecified affective disorder and alcohol and drug dependency. He was also prescribed anti-depressant anti-psychotic medication. 

A state psychologist examined Stephens in January via a video conference. The psychologist reported to the court that he believed Stephens had exaggerated or faked some of his mental health issues, such as hearing voices, and that he was competent to stand trial.

However, the psychologist also warned that jail staff should monitor Stephens closely because of his history of suicidal thoughts. He told the psychologist that he had previously attempted suicide four times and had been hospitalized in 2019 after one attempt. Stephens also told the psychologist that the jail had placed him on suicide watch once in July 2020.

The details of Stephens’ mental health evaluation were first reported by The Oklahoman

“At the time of this evaluation he does not report any suicidal ideation, intent or plans; however his current legal situation is arguably a significant stressor,” the psychologist wrote. “As such he should be monitored closely by detention center personnel.” 

Stephens was initially scheduled for a hearing in Oklahoma County District Court on Jan. 26 to determine whether he was mentally fit to stand trial, but judge postponed the matter until March, according to court records.

Shannon Stephens believes her son became more depressed after the hearing delay. He also told her that he had thoughts of suicide and that he believed he needed different mental health medication but said he was afraid to ask jail staff for help. 

“He laid there for a year, sleeping all day with no mental help,” she said.

Additional reading
Oklahoma County promised to fix its jail more than 10 year ago, but deaths and staffing issues continue

Illustration by Ben Felder for The Frontier