Faced with a decision between putting inmates back in a century-old jail they feel is unsafe or defying a court order, Nowata County Sheriff’s Office officials decided to just resign instead.
Nowata County Sheriff Terry Barnett, Undersheriff Mark Kirschner and several other employees, including deputies and a canine officer, resigned on Monday.
Kirschner told The Frontier on Monday that District Judge Carl Gibson had ordered inmates who had been removed from the jail earlier this month back into the facility. They were originally ordered out of the building after high levels of carbon monoxide had been detected.
A dispatcher who worked at the jail told Kirschner she “felt dizzy and sick” on Feb. 28, KFOR reported earlier this month. That’s when authorities conducted a test and found high levels of carbon monoxide, the cause of which has yet to be found. Four employees were hospitalized.
At the time, 18 inmates were evacuated and four employees were taken to an emergency room.
However, Barnett said Gipson had told the employees on Monday afternoon they could not resign.
“I do not work for the judge,” Barnett said during a news conference at the Nowata County Courthouse on Monday afternoon.
“The judge is an elected official. I’m also an elected official. I do not believe that we live in a country where I can be ordered to go to work after I’ve already tendered my resignation.”
Nowata County Associate District Judge Carl Gibson declined to comment.
Kirschner said Gibson presented the unexpected order Monday morning requiring the sheriff’s office to transfer the inmates back into the jail by 1 p.m. The undersheriff said the judge originally set it at 3 p.m. but moved the deadline up when sheriff’s office officials asked to first consult with a lawyer, he said.
He said the facility does not have the staff to operate the jail — at a minimum, the facility requires six employees to operate, but the agency has only two — and high levels of carbon monoxide are still a concern.
Kirschner, who had been in his position since January, said attracting and keeping jail employees is difficult, as they work long hours and only get paid $7.84 per hour.
“They cannot guarantee it (carbon monoxide poisoning) won’t happen again,” Kirschner said.
Kirschner said black mold has also been an issue, and has a worker’s compensation claim pending because mold in his office has made him sick. There is black mold in the kitchen, too, he said.
Additionally, Barnett said, there is exposed wiring in showers and inmates have been shocked by it. Plumbing in the jail has also been installed improperly, she said.
Inmates have been housed in the Washington County jail since the evacuation, which has cost the sheriff’s office $27 per inmate each day, Kirschner said. Meanwhile, the jail costs $17,000 per month to run, he said.
There were 14 Nowata County inmates in the Washington County jail on Monday. Barnett said the agency had plans to put three of them on an ankle-monitoring program by April 1 and another two were to be transferred to the state’s Department of Corrections.
The undersheriff said rather than choosing between putting people in danger at the jail or going to jail himself for not following the judge’s order, he resigned instead. Surrounding law enforcement agencies have contacted Kirschner offering employment to staff members who resigned, he said.
“It’s frustrating to want to do things correctly and not be given that opportunity,” Kirschner said. “I didn’t come here for the money, because it doesn’t pay enough. I came here to things morally and ethically, and it’s clear that’s not what they want to do.”
During a news conference Monday afternoon, Kirschner said he did not know why the judge insisted on bringing the inmates back to the jail, but said the judge told officials housing inmates in the jail would be cheaper.
“We were blindsided,” Barnett said.
Barnett said citizens can get law enforcement assistance from other local agencies, like the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, game wardens, or even the National Guard.
Sheriff’s office officials have long been concerned about the jail’s condition.
Kirschner told NewsOn6 in February that the women’s restroom was without a working sink for more than a month and employees had to use a shower to wash their hands. Exposed cables hung from the hallways and inmates’ cells.
The jail does not have carbon monoxide detectors or a sprinkler system, according to NewsOn6.
Barnett on Monday said she believed Nowata County to be “extremely corrupt.”
“When I was elected I said I would do the right thing,” Barnett said.
“I was hopeful to see change in Nowata County, but now I see without support it is only continuing to create a dangerous situation. … I, too, hope and pray nothing happens and that our prisoners remain safe wherever they are. I will continue to support Nowata County, but under this environment it is impossible for me to continue.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated it cost Nowata County $17 per inmate per day to house inmates in the Washington County jail. It is $27 per inmate per day.