The Oklahoma County Jail. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

A state oversight agency said there were inconsistencies in the Oklahoma County Detention Center’s suicide prevention policies and found the facility doesn’t train detention officers on how to work with juveniles. 

The investigation by the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth also found the Oklahoma County jail doesn’t allow youth to continue attending high school classes once they turn 18. Because federal law requires the segregation of adult and juvenile prisoners, placement in the Oklahoma County jail is equivalent to solitary confinement when there is only one juvenile there.

Youth at the facility, which does not allow face-to-face visitation, also must pay for phone calls and visitations via video. Additionally,  if a youth refused to wear a “suicide gown” — a thick smock designed to prevent self-harm — staff members would apply use-of-force to remove the youth’s clothes. 

OCCY launched an investigation into the treatment of juveniles in county jails after the death of 16-year old John Leroy Daniel Applegate in May. Applegate attempted suicide and died later in a local hospital.

OCCY presented the findings during an Oklahoma County Jail Trust meeting on Monday. 

Oklahoma County Commissioner Carrie Blumert and Sheriff P.D. Taylor requested the review of the jail’s policies. 

In a 17-page report, OCCY outlined policy concerns related to how the jail handles juveniles. 

Detaining Youth Report August 2019 (Text)

The agency advised the jail amend policies to state when and how suicide gowns should be used and who can order use. Forcibly removing youths’ clothing in order to place them in a smock should be prohibited, the report stated. 

Mark Myers, Public Information Director for the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office, said the recommendations will likely have to be addressed by the incoming Oklahoma County Jail Trust. Trustees voted Monday to hire an administrator to run the jail, removing it from sheriff’s office oversight.

Myers told The Frontier on Tuesday he had heard jail operations could be fully transferred to the Oklahoma County Jail Trust by Jan. 1.

“They’re all great recommendations,” Myers said about the OCCY report. “Our staff will look at those. But as far as implementing them, there’s only a four-month window for the sheriff operating this facility as we are slowly transferring to the trust.”

Ellen Harwell is on OCCY’s recently-formed task force to examine how youth are detained in Oklahoma and presented the group’s report to trustees. She said forcibly removing a youth’s clothing is considered harmful.

“Given the history of trauma that many juvenile delinquents and youth in the system have likely experienced, the idea of adults going in, holding a youth down and forcibly removing their clothing, which would require their pants, shirt, underwear, bra — those types of things in order to place them in a gown is considered a harmful process,” Harwell said. 

“And we will be looking across the state at that, as well.”

OCCY’s report recommended the jail change its suicide prevention policies by better defining the levels of suicide precautions and state who is responsible for removing and placing those precautions. The agency found the jail should better documentation by creating paperwork consistent with policy. 

OCCY director Annette Jacobi said although the agency’s report focused on Oklahoma County, the task force is also looking at how jails across the state detain youth. 

“By no means do we believe this report is exhaustive,” Jacobi told trustees. “We offer it as an opportunity to partner with you and simply as an introduction of us to you as you design future services, practices, policies, and perhaps, even law changes.”

Statewide recommendations

Applegate’s death raised questions about the oversight of juveniles awaiting trial at county jails in the state.

Jacobi told trustees Applegate was the second youth to die from suicide while in custody of an Oklahoma facility within the past year. Because of that, she said, the agency is looking into laws, policies and practices related to detaining youth.

Along with policy recommendations for the Oklahoma County Detention Center, OCCY also proposed a couple of changes to state law. 

Though jails are required to keep juveniles separated from adults by sight and sound, Oklahoma jails aren’t subject to the same standards or state oversight as juvenile detention centers. 

The standards that Oklahoma jails must abide by when housing juveniles are less stringent than the rules juvenile detention centers are required to follow.

Jails and city lockups follow rules established by the state’s health department. Juvenile detention facilities have a separate set of rules under the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs.

OCCY recommended Oklahoma create a statute that identifies juvenile detention facilities as the default placement for all youth. The agency also proposed a law that would give OCCY the authority to operate and oversee the grievance process for youth both before and after conviction of adjudication.