Protesters chanting “lock them up” shut down a meeting of the trust that oversees Oklahoma County’s jail on Monday.
The Oklahoma County Criminal Justice had planned a special meeting on Wednesday to hear concerns from the public about Oklahoma County’s plans to use as much as $36 million of federal CARES Act funds for to improve conditions at the jail, but protesters demanded to be heard Monday instead, at times shouting through a bullhorn after the microphone at the public podium was cut off.
Other communities have used CARES Act funds for assistance to small businesses and the unemployed, but the jail needs millions of dollars in funding to address problems with the ventilation system to keep the coronavirus from spreading, as well as for other maintenance and health issues at the facility, Tricia Everest, trust chairwoman, told reporters after the meeting.
The protesters also raised concerns about ongoing safety and sanitation issues at the jail including bed bugs and staffing shortages they said had led to some detainees not receiving dinner until after midnight. Some protesters asked that jail trust members spend a night in the jail themselves to experience the conditions there.
The jail is also experiencing staffing shortages due to the coronavirus. The jail had 28 staff members who were on leave last week after testing positive for COVID-19 and more were quarantined after possible exposure.
Protester Nadia Ford, who said she was a former detention officer at the jail, complained about dangerous working conditions and constant staffing shortages made worse by the coronavirus.
“You all knew this was coming and nobody did shit to prepare,” Ford said, at times leaning over the horseshoe to shout and point at trust members.
The jail trust first attempted to conduct business over the din of the protesters, before eventually voting to cut the meeting short.
“I appreciate what they’re saying and I appreciate their anger,” said Jail Administrator Greg Williams after the meeting. “I’m here for the same reason they’re here.”
Everest spoke with one protester after the meeting and said she would agree to spend a night in jail, at a to-be announced later date.
The trust took over the jail on July 1 and inherited many of the problems from its previous operator, the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office, she said.
“We agree with absolutely everything you are saying,” Everest told protesters after the meeting.
Williams said 206 detainees have tested positive for COVID-19 at the jail over the last five months, up from 93 from a week ago. The vast majority of detainees were asymptomatic, he said.
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections sent 26 correctional officers to work at the jail last week to address staffing shortages at the jail.
The Department of Corrections is also battling outbreaks of COVID-19 at multiple facilities and doesn’t have the staff to spare, said Bobby Cleveland, executive director of Oklahoma Corrections Professional, which represents correctional officers in the state prison system.
“They’re working like dogs,” Cleveland said. “And to send our guys over there into an organization that is mismanaged and being run by people who don’t know what they’re doing just makes me mad.”
BRIANNA BAILEY August 14, 2020
The Oklahoma County Detention Center changed hands in the middle of a pandemic. Now it’s struggling with staffing and funding to combat the virus.