Tears spill down Ladona Poore’s pale cheeks as she searches for the words to describe what it was like at age 17 to be locked in a solitary jail cell 23 hours a day.
“It will make you go crazy, being in the cell, 23 hours locked down, 24 sometimes because they don’t always let you out,” she said in a soft, shaky voice.
Poore, now 23, said when underage girls held in the Tulsa Jail’s medical unit were allowed out of their cells for “rec time,” there was no fresh air, no sunny courtyard like other inmates had.
The girls could see the sun streaming in through small windows but weren’t allowed outside. They spent the hour hanging out in a bare room with a television near the nurses’ station.
In an exclusive interview with The Frontier and our news partner, NewsOn6, Poore spoke about her case and what she views as mistreatment of girls in the jail. Poore was the plaintiff who prevailed in a federal civil rights lawsuit this week against former Sheriff Stanley Glanz and Acting Sheriff Michelle Robinette.
Her lawsuit alleged she was repeatedly raped, forced to perform oral sex and groped by a male detention officer over four months in 2010.
Following the trial in U.S. District Court, jurors found Glanz and the sheriff’s office were “deliberately indifferent” to the risk of serious harm to Poore, awarding $25,000 to the plaintiff. Her attorneys also recoup their legal fees and costs, which after six years are expected to run in the high six figures.
The Frontier and NewsOn6 do not name victims of sexual assault without their permission. Poore agreed to be identified by name and to speak on camera. However, the sheriff’s office would not allow the news organizations to show her face on camera, without explaining their reasoning.
Poore said she is coming forward to encourage girls under 18 held in the jail to speak out against any abuse and demand more humane treatment. Poore’s interview took place in the jail, where she is currently awaiting review of her competency in a separate case.
Her attorney said the lawsuit award will be used to obtain treatment for her past abuse and trauma.
“It’s just hard. It’s no place I don’t think any juvenile wants to go. You cry a lot,” Poore said of the David L. Moss detention center. “They should be able to go to a regular rec area and get air instead of being stuck in that cell. ”
Despite jail standards stating that teenagers should have some chance to exercise, Poore said she and other underage girls had none during her time in the jail in 2010. Instead they paced the cells, estimated to be 12 feet by 15 feet.
“I think they should get a little exercise. I’d walk back and forth in my room sometimes,” she said.
The girls would talk to each other through “bean holes,” openings in the steel doors where meal trays are passed through. A TV was on all day outside their cell, which they’d listen to through the bean holes.
Boys have their own pod with a common area that allows them to move around, watch television and socialize.
Oklahoma’s Youthful Offender Act allows boys and girls as young as 15 to be held in adult jails if they are charged with one of 18 crimes. Most are serious crimes such as murder and rape but the list also includes attempted burglary and several drug crimes.
When Poore was first arrested at 17, she was charged with assault and eventually received a deferred sentence.
Women who act out and are placed in a segregation unit typically receive a hearing within 72 hours to be confined in the same manner that girls under 18 are held in every day at the jail, said Poore’s attorney, Tom Mortensen.
Robinette has said there simply aren’t enough girls to warrant a whole pod for them. Records show in the past 14 months, the jail housed 24 juvenile females.
In pods where adult women are held, detention officers must be female. Since the medical unit isn’t designated as “youthful offender” housing, rules designed to protect juveniles are not applied to them.
Male officers conducting security checks every 30 minutes can view girls in the shower, using the bathroom and changing clothes. Girls are allowed to go to the shower room three times a week but Poore said sometimes she’d oversleep so would make do using the sink in her cell.
“You don’t always get a shower and you’re trying to wash yourself. … I think that’s one of the reasons there should be a female DO.”
Talking about the sexual abuse she suffered in the jail is clearly painful for Poore, who sobbed on the witness stand when discussing being raped by the jailer. She said she didn’t want to file the lawsuit, never wanted to be in front of a room filled with strangers hearing about what happened to her, but did so with the support of her mom.
“It’s hard whenever I talk about the details, even to my mom, and when I think about that stuff I just want to numb it. I just want to numb myself.”
Mortensen said the lawsuit “wasn’t just about her.”
“It was about all the other juvenile girls in that facility and it’s a message to Glanz or whoever is taking over the jail that they need to take these standards very seriously.”
‘We know something happened’
Some of the same conditions that led Poore to sue and jurors to decide against the county remain unchanged and the sheriff’s office has no plan to address them, The Frontier and NewsOn6 learned.
During an interview, Robinette said the verdict “was disheartening, because I don’t think that we were deliberately indifferent.”
However, the six-member jury unanimously disagreed.
The acting sheriff and defense attorney Clark Brewster worked to cast doubt on Poore’s version of events, saying “we know something happened” but implying the sexual contact amounted to “improper touching.”
After the verdict, Brewster said the amount of the award showed jurors didn’t entirely believe Poore’s story. But to find for the plaintiff, all jurors had to agree the harm was serious, amounting to more than isolated incidents, and that the sheriff’s office knew about but disregarded the risk.
Poore said she did not report the abuse while in jail because she was afraid she’d be hurt or killed if she spoke out. The same detention officer, Seth Bowers, angrily confronted another girl in the jail at the same time who filed a grievance about problems in the medical unit.
Poore said if she told her mom she had been raped by a detention officer “she would have come up here and nutted out,” possibly getting arrested herself.
“It would be just me in that cell and … and I had to wait until I got out.”
Bowers resigned one day before he was scheduled to take a polygraph as part of an investigation by the sheriff’s office. During a 2012 deposition, he invoked the Fifth Amendment more than a dozen times when asked if he had sexual contact with Poore, including intercourse and oral sex.
The sheriff’s office recommended charges against Bowers in 2010 to the district attorney, who declined to file them.
An attorney for Bowers said invoking the Fifth Amendment should not be viewed as evidence of guilt. Bowers was initially a defendant in the lawsuit but settled for undisclosed terms.
The jury that ruled against the sheriff’s office heard evidence that in 2010, the agency had no cameras in the jail’s medical unit where underage girls are held despite prior sexual assaults.
Records show a male nurse watched a 15-year-old girl shower in the medical unit in 2008 and an adult female inmate was raped by a male inmate in 2009 while shackled to a bed in the unit.
There are cameras in jail pods housing adult males, adult females and juvenile males.
A reporter for the NewsOn6 toured the jail’s medical unit Wednesday. Despite TCSO’s claims that cameras were placed in the medical unit in 2011, no cameras exist beyond a locked door leading to cells where female juveniles are held.
State jail standards require juveniles to be separated by sight and sound from adult inmates. But the jail doesn’t always follow that rule when it comes to girls.
Poore and other girls held with her in 2010 were housed near an adult male inmate whom other inmates had threatened to kill due to his role in a murder case.
Currently, two teens awaiting trial on charges of brutally murdering their own family members — 19-year-old Robert Bever and his 17-year-old brother, Michael — are being held in cells next to underage girls.
The brothers were each charged with five counts of first-degree murder for allegedly stabbing five family members to death in July 2015.
Tape affixed to the door of one of the brother’s cells indicated he had been violent while housed in the jail.
Robinette said the Bever brothers are being held there for their own protection.
She said the sheriff’s office cannot afford to assign only female detention officers to the underage girls. Supervisors try to have female officers available when needed, but that’s not always possible, Robinette said.
“When you enter the detention system, you lose certain privileges. … I always err on the side of safety and security for the inmate, not necessarily modesty.”
Mark Opgrande, a spokesman for Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel, said the Oklahoma County jail also houses underage girls in the medical unit.
“I think the most we will ever usually have is two females in our facility,” Opgrande said. “They’re not locked in a cell 23/7 and we will use only female guards, not the male guards.”
One issue that will be addressed, Robinette said, is training. Detention officers in the medical unit were not required to have special training to deal with juveniles, though they did need such training in the boys’ unit.
“We’re going to put the training in the academy so everybody’s trained. … That’s an easy fix,” she said.
Robinette said the sheriff’s office simply can’t afford to set aside part or all of a jail pod for the few girls who wind up in the adult lockup.
“To close a 74-bed pod for one female for six months, that’s not cost effective. You can’t put a price on juvenile females, you can’t put a price on any inmate, and I understand that.”
Though the jail is adding four new pods for adult prisoners, including those with mental illness, no space is planned for female juveniles.
No money for cameras, $400,000 for attorneys
During closing arguments in Poore’s trial, her attorneys hammered on the failure of the sheriff’s office to install cameras in the medical unit following the 2008 shower incident. It seemed like a simple step the office could take to protect girls, they said.
Glanz acknowledged in depositions that cameras would deter detention officers or other inmates from sexually assaulting the girls.
During her interview Thursday, Robinette said: “The cameras are there now. I think our own officers are also being more vigilant with each other.”
When told that no camera has been placed behind the locked door of the unit where girls are housed, Robinette cited the expense of adding one.
“What people don’t understand is, that’s a lot of money,” she said.
What about placing a temporary video camera on a tripod in the hallway or on top of the television cart already stationed outside the girls’ cells?
“That would be in the way of everything,” Robinette replied.
Though the sheriff’s office says it lacks funds to improve conditions for girls in the jail, it has doled out plenty of money to attorneys in the past year, The Frontier found.
Records show the county has paid more than $400,000 to outside attorneys for the sheriff’s office in the past 10 months, largely to defend civil rights lawsuits. The costs undoubtedly ballooned after a reserve deputy, Robert Bates, fatally shot an unarmed man, saying he only meant to use his Taser.
The law firm of attorney Scott Wood, who represented Bates, has been paid $200,265 since May 2015. Wood’s firm represents the sheriff’s office when deputies are sued or charged because of on duty actions.
Bates is awaiting trial on a second-degree manslaughter charge after he shot and killed Eric Harris last year during a gun sting.
The county has paid Brewster’s law firm, Brewster & De Angelis, $178,000 in the past seven months. Brewster is a longtime friend and supporter of the indicted sheriff and his wife and daughter hold lucrative patronage jobs as sheriff’s appraisers.
Brewster represented Glanz and Robinette in the trial that ended this week and will represent the county and taxpayers in 21 other civil rights lawsuits pending against the sheriff’s office. Those cases include suits on behalf of five inmates who died in the jail, one who was raped and several who were injured.
Financial awards to any plaintiffs who successfully sue the sheriff or other county officers are generally paid out of property taxes.
While the jury returned a relatively low award to Poore — $25,000 — taxpayers will still pick up the full tab for the six year battle by her attorneys, Mortensen and Dan Smolen. Attorneys who prevail in federal civil rights suits can recover all fees and costs regardless of the size of the plaintiff’s award.
Taxpayers also paid $33,969 tab for a third law firm, McDonald, McCann, Metcalf & Carwile, to help Glanz wage a unsuccessful fight against a grand jury investigation.
Though county commissioners have approved all the legal contracts and payments, they’ve said the sheriff is an elected official who decides how to spend his or her own budget.
Glanz resigned in November after he was indicted on two misdemeanors. The charges involve his refusal to release a 2009 report about Bates and allege he improperly accepted mileage reimbursements.
Doing ‘the best we could’
Robinette notes that she is only acting sheriff for about 30 days. After that, any changes to address the jury verdict would be up to the newly elected sheriff.
She said the sheriff’s office is doing “the best we could with what we have.”
“Is it perfect? No facility is ever going to be perfect. We continue to make improvements and continue to make changes.”
She rejected the notion that juvenile females are housed in substandard conditions.
“You walk in that medical unit, it’s bright, it’s airy, it’s active, it’s busy. … So I don’t want the public thinking that these juvenile females are being abused and thrown in a hole. It’s not a hole.”
Though the county is drawing up plans for a new juvenile justice center, housing female youthful offenders such as Poore there may not be possible, Robinette said. County officials have discussed housing all juveniles, regardless of their legal status, in the new center.
“The problem is there’s a difference between youthful offenders and juvenile offenders. … I don’t know if they’re going to be able to do that or not. ”
Poore said she hopes by telling her story, someone with authority to improve conditions for underage girls in the jail will do so.
“I’m not a violent person or anything like that. I’m telling the truth and I want to make a difference.”