Brad Lane screamed for help repeatedly the night he was beaten to death by his cellmate in the Oklahoma County Detention Center in January. By the time detention officers arrived nearly an hour later, Lane was unresponsive.
Blood covered the walls of the cell.
“He kept saying ‘he’s killing me, help me, he’s killing me,’” said Christopher Autrey, who was held in a cell on the 13th floor near Lane. Autrey spoke to The Frontier in a video call from the jail, where he is being held on property and drug-related charges. He’s been named in court records as a witness to Lane’s death.
Lane’s screams started after prisoners received their evening meal trays and there were no detention officers on the floor, Autrey said. State law requires jailers to visually check on prisoners in their cells at least once an hour, but the guard assigned to the 13th floor that night was busy escorting an inmate to the medical clinic and missed one of her rounds, according to court records.
Another prisoner called for help three times from the phone in his cell, which connected to jail medical staff, but there was no answer, according to court documents.
“It was traumatic for us,” Autrey said, who was in a cell about five feet away from Lane, “I kept telling him to fight back.”
The Oklahoma County Detention Center has struggled for decades with inadequate funding and staffing shortages.
The U.S. Department of Justice has repeatedly documented dangerous conditions at the jail that it found violated prisoners’ civil rights since at least 2003, but the agency has failed to enforce the terms of a settlement requiring the county to adequately fund and staff the facility.
Records show the jail now employs fewer detention officers to supervise prisoners than it did in 2008
Oklahoma County transitioned control of the jail from the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office to a public trust in July 2020 in hopes of reform, but problems have persisted.
Seven prisoners have died at the Oklahoma County Detention Center in the past three months.
A shortage of detention officers and the facility’s flawed design that makes it virtually impossible to continuously monitor each cell have contributed to the problem.
Documented insufficient staffing levels and the overall poor condition of the 30-year old jail building have contributed to high death rates and a lack of basic rights for prisoners at the jail over the past decade.
There have been at least 84 deaths at the Oklahoma County Detention Center since 2009, according to data compiled by The Frontier and an investigation into jail death rates by Reuters. The jail had an average annual death rate of 3.3 per 1,000 inmates over the past 10 years, more than double the national average, according data compiled by Reuters.
Six detention officers have been charged in state court with assault and mistreatment of prisoners at the jail since October. Many of the charges stem from uses of force against prisoners who left their cells at unauthorized times to shower or use the restroom amid jail staffing shortages.
Oklahoma City Public Schools, which contracts with the jail to provide basic education for prisoners at the jail under the age of 18, says it can’t guarantee a minimum four hours of classroom time a day, in part because of low staffing levels and elevators that constantly break down.
Department of Justice has failed to act
In 2008, The U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report on conditions at the Oklahoma County Detention Center. Federal inspectors found inadequate supervision and staffing at the jail, a lack of basic medical and mental health care, overcrowding and a high rate of inmate assaults and deaths.
Under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, the Department of Justice has the power to file lawsuits on behalf of jail and prison inmates in order to compel state and local governments to provide humane living conditions.
Oklahoma County entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Justice in 2009 that required the county to adequately fund and staff the jail by 2014, or face court action from the federal government to force compliance. The jail’s funding comes primarily from property taxes the county collects. Oklahoma County has no dedicated sales tax to fund jail operations.
The agreement acknowledged that Oklahoma County did not have sufficient funding to adequately staff or make improvements to jail and would need to ask voters to approve a tax increase or financing.
However it also noted that “failure to secure funding does not release the County from the duty to provide constitutional conditions at the jail.”
While understaffing and high death rates have continued, the deadline for compliance passed more than six years ago and the federal government has taken no further legal action.
There’s no effective way to enforce the type of agreement that Oklahoma County entered into with the Department of Justice — it basically amounts to an out-of-court settlement, said Jonathan M. Smith, executive director for the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. Smith led the special litigation section of the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice from 2010 to 2015.
He said he believes the Department of Justice should seek a court order in highly complex cases like the one involving the Oklahoma County Detention Center.
“In those cases in which there are significant problems that require the implementation of a remedy over an extended period of time, a court ordered remedy – either a consent decree or injunction after trial – is more appropriate,” Smith said in an email to The Frontier.
As long as Oklahoma County has been able to show it has been making some effort to make improvements, the Department of Justice has not pressed the issue, said Francie Ekwerekwu, who sits on the jail trust.
“I think that, honestly, if we’re meeting those standards it’s just barely, if at all,” she said.
Mark Myers, a spokesman for former Oklahoma County Sheriff P.D. Taylor, who left office in January, said in December that the Department of Justice and county officials met in 2019, when inspectors said they had seen enough improvements at the jail to release the county from the agreement, but wanted to wait until the jail trust took over to ensure progress continued.
The sheriff’s office declined The Frontier’s open records request for quarterly reports it was required to file with the Department of Justice to track progress on improvements at the jail, stating the documents fell under an exemption for some law enforcement records.
Jail administrator Greg Williams and officials for the public trust that oversees the jail says they have had no contact with the Department of Justice since it took control of the facility in July 2020.
The Department of Justice declined to comment or provide basic details on the status of its settlement with Oklahoma County.
Staffing shortages persist
Outside of hourly sight checks, medication and meal deliveries, prisoners at the Oklahoma County Detention Center are mostly alone in their housing units without direct supervision. Staff in a central control center monitor the housing units using security cameras.
In the event of a medical emergency, assault or mental health crisis, prisoners have to use a phone in their cells to call the command center for help, which then alerts detention officers to respond.
Oklahoma County’s agreement with the Department of Justice required it to hire enough staff so that each jail housing unit or pod would have at least one detention officer to continuously monitor prisoners.
The jail trust has made it one of its top priorities to move to a system of direct supervision, but hiring enough staff to accomplish that goal has proved to be a challenge.
The jail currently has about 336 full-time and six part-time officers to guard the jail, not including other support staff, and is budgeted for 400 total employees. The detention center also now uses 31 contract law enforcement officers to watch over prisoners when they are sent to local hospitals to receive medical care.
Tricia Everest, chairwoman of the trust that now oversees the jail says these numbers are about equivalent to staffing levels the jail has maintained in years past.
But the jail employs and is budgeted for fewer detention officers now than it was in 2008, when the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office employed 377 officers and was budgeted for 490 total employees, according to data the county reported to the Department of Justice that year.
Some outside audits have suggested it could take as many as 600 or 700 detention officers to fully staff the jail, said Tricia Everest, chairwoman of the trust that now oversees the jail.
The jail trust said it has hired 103 new detention officers and clerical staff since it took over in July, but turnover is a constant problem, jail administrator Greg Williams said in written responses to The Frontier’s questions. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has also contributed to the staffing shortages, he said.
The pay is low, about $3,000 a month, and working conditions can be dangerous. The Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office reported 254 cases of prisoners assaulting detention officers in 2018.
The trust has increased training time for recruits and has also begun providing more time in the jail for officers to see what the job is like.
“The duties of a detention officer are highly stressful and demanding, and not everyone is the right fit for that role,” Williams wrote. “As with many jobs, it takes real-time experience in the field for each person to figure out if he or she is cut out for a career in this field.”
Prisoners can rig their cell doors open in order to take a shower
While the jail trust says it has increased the amount of time prisoners spend out of their cells by 20 percent, staffing shortages mean prisoners don’t always get enough time out of their cells to shower, according to interviews with former detention officers and prisoners.
“Myself, I would love for people to be able to have a shower every day, but it does require way more staff than what we have now,” Ekwerekwu said.
But cell doors throughout most of the facility have faulty doors and locking mechanisms that prisoners can easily rig to open to move around freely in their housing units and maybe even sneak in an unsanctioned shower.
The Department of Justice called on Oklahoma County to fix the locks in 2008 but it wasn’t until 2019 that the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office spent $1 million to install new locking mechanisms on about a third of the jail’s 1,200 cells.
The jail trust estimates it will cost an additional $3.8 million to completely remedy the problem. The trust voted on Friday to ask the county for $5.9 million in funding to repair the doors and locks as well as to fix or replace other aging equipment at the jail.
Five of the six detention officers who now face criminal charges were involved in uses of force against prisoners who left their cells to shower or use the toilet without permission from detention officers, according to court records and interviews.
Three of the former detention officers charged involving alleged assaults on prisoners occured after the jail trust took over.
“Detainees that are complying with security protocols are given access to the dayrooms and showers throughout the day as conditions permit that access to be safe for both detainees and staff,” Williams said in response to The Frontier’s questions about the issue.
Tricia Everest, chairwoman of the jail trust, says the new administration has made positive changes at the detention center, including adding more classes and programs for prisoners and spending more money to provide higher quality food, but changing the employee culture takes time.
None of the detention officers facing criminal charges still work at the jail.
“For the staff that we have today, we have zero tolerance of any kind of hands-on force on the detainees,” Everest said.
Some jail staff quit last year after the jail trust cracked down the use of physical force against prisoners, said one former detention officer who was fired by the new administration in 2020 after an altercation with an inmate who refused to return to his cell in order to take a shower. The man said he feared for his life after a previous incident in which an inmate attacked him while he was working alone in one of the jail housing units.
The former detention officer agreed to an interview on the condition his name not be published.
The shortage of staff at the jail has contributed to a lack of control over the prisoners there, the man said.
“They have a lot more liberty to do what they want because so many officers have either left and went to another job or resigned or have just been fired,” the man said.
Former detention officer Steven Blake Brewer faces two separate charges of misdemeanor assault against prisoners at the jail in connection with incidents before and after the jail trust took control of the facility.
Brewer, who stands 6-foot-2 inches tall and weighs 280 pounds, is accused of punching a naked female prisoner in the face with a closed fist in August. The woman later recounted the alleged assault in a letter from jail to her father. Her attorney, Cameron Spradling, provided the letter to The Frontier.
Another jailer called Brewer for backup after the woman refused to return to her cell and went to take a shower, she wrote. Brewer beat her before spraying her face and torso with pepper spray as she lay naked on the floor of the shower in a fetal position, according to the woman’s account.
“He beat the shit outta me…..I have nobody, daddy,” the woman wrote. “I know I had an attitude but that dude did me dirty.”
Brewer is also accused of punching a male detainee in the head with a closed fist while the prisoner was using the toilet and refused to return to his cell. Brewer clenched a pair of handcuffs in his fist as he delivered blows to the man’s head, prosecutors allege. The prisoner needed 12 staples in his scalp to close the wounds, according to court documents.
The incident occured when the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office operated the detention center in 2019, but Brewer continued to work at the jail and wasn’t charged in the incident until after the trust took over in 2020.
Brewer declined to comment on the pending charges when contacted by The Frontier.
Three former detention officers face misdemeanor charges of cruelty for allegedly forcing prisoners to listen to the children’s song “Baby Shark” while the sheriff’s office ran the jail. The detention officers sometimes used the song as a form of discipline for inmates who left their cells, according to accounts from former prisoners.
It was just after 2 a.m. on a Saturday in December 2019 when two detention officers took John Basco from his cell and forced him to listen to the song on repeat for two hours while standing with his hands cuffed to a metal bar, according to a court affidavit.
The two former detention officers, Christian Miles and Gregory Butler, and a former supervisor who allegedly knew about the “Baby Shark” listening sessions now face misdemeanor criminal charges.
Basco was in custody facing drug charges at the time. His jail cell was designed to hold just one person, but he shared it with two other men. Basco told The Frontier in an interview that it was common for him to go three or four days at a time without time to shower, because of a constant lack of staff at the jail, he said.
Outside of hourly sight checks and meal deliveries, the men were mostly left alone on the pod, he said.
He believes the detention officers singled him out for the punishment after he rigged the old, faulty lock in his cell so he could walk freely around the jail pod, shower and use a toilet with more privacy than the one in his shared living area.
“I was just trying to have some civil way of living — it’s inhumane,” Basco said.
Miles and Butler later told an investigator they believed that the jail didn’t provide enough discipline for unruly prisoners, according to court documents. Prosecutors accuse the former detention officers of using the “Baby Shark” song as a form of punishment against at least five men held at the jail.
Another former jail prisoner, Brandon Newell, said in a letter from prison that Miles and Butler also forced him to listen to “Baby Shark” on repeat as punishment after he rigged his cell door to open. The letter was provided to The Frontier by Spradling, who said he is weighing legal action on behalf of prisoners subjected to the “Baby Shark” punishment, which he equated to torture.
“After the third repeat I wanted to scream,” Newell wrote. “…I said ‘please, fix my door or whatever you want, just please turn off the music.’”
Lane wore a walking boot after he broke his leg in a motorcycle accident.
His cellmate Shaquile Brown is now charged with first-degree murder, accused of using a metal brace from the walking boot to beat Lane to death.
The night of the attack, Brown was being held in the jail on charges of aggravated assault and attempted first degree robbery.
Lane was facing multiple criminal charges at the time of his death, including possession of a stolen vehicle, drug possession and reckless driving. But friends believe Lane shouldn’t have been placed in a cell with Brown, who was charged with violent crimes.
Friends and family remember 40-year old Lane as smart, kind and good with children.
He loved to draw, read and could build or fix anything with his hands, Lane’s girlfriend Crystal Oldham said.
“It was impossible to be bored around him,” Oldham said. “He left a mark on everyone he came across.”
Oldham had Lane’s name tattooed on her arm after he died.
“Brad did make bad choices in life — no one is perfect,” Oldham said. “But he was a good person. He definitely didn’t deserve what he got.”
Friend Staci Baumann said Lane struggled with depression and used drugs to escape. He contacted her not long before he died and said he was thinking about trying to get into a treatment program.
She’s haunted by thoughts that she could have tried to scrape together enough money to post his bond.
“He had to have known that he was dying,” Baumann said. “He was probably thinking, ‘somebody will come. They’ll finally come. Somebody will come.’ And nobody came.”