Oklahoma prison system stops accepting newly sentenced prisoners amid pandemic

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Oklahoma Department of Corrections. Courtesy NewsOn6

In a bid to stop the spread of COVID-19, the Oklahoma prison system has locked its doors to newly sentenced prisoners from county jails from around the state. 

Prison officials across the United States are taking steps to keep the virus from spreading rapidly behind bars, ranging from halting in-person visits and screening correctional officers for signs of illness. In Arizona, state officials announced a plan to stop charging inmates for soap and waiving healthcare fees. 

Depending on how long the crisis lasts, it could cause a logjam at Oklahoma’s two largest county jails in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. 

The Oklahoma County Detention Center in Oklahoma City has battled overcrowding for years.  

On Friday, the jail had 188 prisoners who were waiting to be transferred to prison. 

The county typically transfers about 50 prisoners to the state prison system each week after sentencing, said Mark Myers, a spokesman for the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office. 

“We have no idea how long this situation is going to last,” Myers said.  “Everything right now is fluid.”

The Oklahoma County jail has operated under supervision from the U.S. Department of Justice for more than a decade due to problems overcrowding and poor supervision. 

The facility was originally built to hold about 1,200 detainees, but has a maximum rated capacity of 2,890 from the state fire marshal. The maximum number represents a “nightmare scenario” in which most detainees would be housed three to a cell with some people sleeping on the floor.  

The jail held about 1,500 detainees on Friday, lower than usual after efforts in the county to release many nonviolent offenders.

The Oklahoma County jail has operated under supervision from the U.S. Department of Justice for more than a decade due to problems with overcrowding and poor supervision. 

Cell by Cell: Oklahoma County jail’s poor design contributes to safety, security issues

There were 177 prisoners in Oklahoma County awaiting transfer to state prisons on Friday. 

State corrections chief Scott Crow gave no indication of how long the state prison system intends to keep its gates closed. Crow wrote a letter earlier this week to the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association this week and said the Department of Corrections hopes the policy will not be “long term.”

“While this was an unprecedented safety initiative in our state, it is necessary to keep COVID-19 out of correctional institutions,” the Department of Corrections said in a statement to The Frontier.

For now, local police departments and the sheriffs office are trying to help keep Oklahoma County’s jail population down by not arresting people for misdemeanor offenses and warrants.

Prosecutors and public defenders in Tulsa and Oklahoma counties coordinated on efforts to expedite the release of hundreds of nonviolent offenders from the jails to help reduce jail populations. 

The Oklahoma County jail held about 1,500 people on Friday, down after efforts by the Oklahoma County Public Defender’s office and criminal justice reform advocates to help win release of about 150 to 200 people from jail for probation violations, bond and plea agreements for misdemeanors. 

Oklahoma County public Defender Robert Ravtiz said he believes these efforts will help slow crowding at the jail, but wonders for how long. 

“Obviously, if the Department of Corrections doesn’t accept people, we could be backed up in no time at all,” he said. 

Corbin Brewster, right, leaves District Judge James Caputo’s courtroom on Friday, Oct. 30, 2015, after Caputo recused himself from hearing Robert Bates’ manslaughter case. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

In Tulsa County, Public Defender Corbin Brewster’s office helped negotiate the expedited release of about 130 prisoners from jail through accelerated bond reviews and plea agreements over the past week to help keep the jail population down in the wake of the virus. Those freed included three pregnant women, he said. 

The state has suspended all jury trials for at least the next month in response to the COVID-19 crisis. 

Brewster worries the situation could exacerbate existing flaws in the criminal justice system. 

Defendants who can’t afford bond are already incentivized to plead guilty to criminal charges in order to get out of jail. 

“You now insert a global pandemic and that incentive is amplified just like any other problem in the system,” he said. 

Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler said his office has been working to help keep the jail population down by evaluating who might be a good candidate for probation and helping coordinate speedy bond hearings. But he stopped short of saying his office would stop seeking pre-trial detention on misdemeanors and non violent offenses. 

Every charge is reviewed on a case-by case basis, he said. 

The district attorney is also looking at using video conferencing to help speed up hearings in the coming weeks, he said. 

“The crisis is an opportunity to see if there are any new and innovative ways to modernize our criminal justice process and I’m seeing that unfold on a daily basis,” he said. 

Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Between January and March, the Department of Corrections accepted an average 560 to 640 prisoners a month from county jails in Oklahoma, with most of them coming from Tulsa and Oklahoma City metropolitan areas. 

Jailers in Cleveland and Canadian counties said the Department of Corrections bottleneck wouldn’t affect their jail populations as much as it would in Tulsa and Oklahoma counties due to lower volume of detainees. 

Canadian County Sheriff Chris West said he’s had plenty of room at the county jail since the state’s enacted criminal justice reforms in 2016 to reduce many drug possession and property crimes to misdemeanors.

There’s typically a lag time between sentencing and transfer to state prison anyway, he said. 

“In reality, they may be in my jail anywhere from, you know, a week to a month,” he said. 

Officials in Tulsa County said they were unaware of the Department of Corrections decision to refuse new prisoners until The Frontier called on Thursday. 

Tulsa County has been in an ongoing legal dispute with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections since 2017 over how much the state pays to house inmates at the jail. 

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections pays county jailers a daily rate of $27 per prisoner, plus medical expenses, but Tulsa County says it actually costs about $69 a day to house inmates. 

The Tulsa County jail has a maximum capacity of 2,000, and held about 1,200 detainees on Thursday, said Casey Roebuck, a spokeswoman for the Tulsa County Sheriff. About 30 were awaiting transfer to state prison on Friday. 

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Brianna Bailey

Brianna Bailey grew up in Idaho. Oklahoma is her adopted home. Bailey has covered issues ranging from Oklahoma's strained child welfare system to the slow decline of Oklahoma's rural hospitals. She has walked all the way across Oklahoma City twice, once north-to south via Western Avenue and once via the old U.S. Route 66. Her hobbies are baking and crashing meetings she isn't invited to attend. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from The University of Oklahoma. Email her at brianna@readfrontier.com
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