The Nowata County Jail. Graphic by DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

The Nowata County jail, stage for a county-wide drama that has unfolded there this week, has been cited by state agencies during inspections several times over the last three years, records show.

The Oklahoma State Fire Marshal and inspectors with the Oklahoma State Department of Health Jail Inspection Division found multiple deficiencies in the jail over the last three years, records show.

Sheriff Terry Sue Barnett resigned on Monday, as did her undersheriff and much of her staff, in protest over a court order by Associate District Judge Carl Gibson, which directed inmates back into the county jail. Barnett resigned, saying she felt the facility was still unsafe following a series of carbon monoxide poisonings last month.

Records show she might have had a point.

A fire marshal inspector on Jan. 11 wrote in a report that the century-old jail did not have a fire alarm system, which was required under state building codes. Additionally, electrical wiring in a shower area was exposed, and inspectors marked the wiring as a “hazardous electrical condition” in an emergency order of repair.

The agency ordered jail officials to conduct and document fire watches until a fire alarm was installed. During the fire watch, employees were required to patrol the facility to “observe the environment for fire hazards,” and were to be assigned no other duties.

The inspector also noted the jail had no carbon monoxide detection installed, but did not fault the jail for its absence.

In a subsequent visit on Jan. 29, the inspector stated the wiring had been fixed, but there was still no alarm system.

Health department inspectors also found several deficiencies during their latest review of the jail, which was in April 2018, records show.

Kenny Freeman, who was sheriff at the time, failed to report an inmate’s suicide attempt in February that year. Oklahoma law requires jail officials to report such incidents to the state’s health department within the next business day. However, Nowata County officials waited six days, health department records show.

Jail inspectors also investigated a complaint of mold in the jail, but wrote in a report that they found none.

An email between health department officials and inspectors from March 1 of this year stated that Barnett contacted the jail inspection division about the carbon monoxide incident from Feb. 28 and that an agency employee would call her.

Health department spokesman Tony Sellars said the agency has not yet been able to go to the jail to follow up on the reported high levels of carbon monoxide.

Inspection reports from earlier years also cited deficiencies in the jail.

In December 2016, when Rick Miller was sheriff, state inspectors found the jail did not have proper policies and procedures in place for staff training and orientation.

In March 2017, inspectors cited the sheriff for having inadequate medical care in the jail for inmates. Jail officials failed to make a doctor’s appointment for an inmate within 48 hours when a need for care was indicated at booking.

“Sheriff stated that Jailer #1 stated that there was no one available staff to take inmate to his appointment on January 7, 2017, due to shortage of staff,” the health department’s report said.

Inspectors also stated male inmates routinely would break light fixtures in the men’s pod.

During that same inspection, the sheriff’s office was cited for failing to take an inmate to medical appointments.

In November 2017, inspectors admonished then-sheriff Sandy Hadley for failing to report an inmate’s suicide attempt in a timely manner. Jail officials waited six days to report the incident, which occurred in June that year, records show.

‘It’s all been wasted’

Barnett, elected last November, had been adamant she would not return staff and inmates to the jail until a full inspection had been done, and that, regardless, the jail could not run on the few employees she had.

Undersheriff Mark Kirschner, who resigned alongside Barnett, told The Frontier on Monday that the sheriff’s office had only two employees to operate the jail when at minimum, six were needed. He said jail staff get paid only $7.84 per hour.

“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,” Barnett said at a news conference on Monday.

“I will continue to support Nowata County, but under this environment it is impossible for me to continue.”

The Nowata County Board of County Commissioners on Wednesday voted to approve Barnett’s resignation and appointed Mirta Hallet as interim sheriff.

Nowata County Commissioner Burke LaRue grew emotional at the meeting, which was streamed by Nowata TV Channel 25, as the board voted to accept Barnett’s resignation.

“You’ve rekindled the light, so it’s time to think of our future of this county and to preserve it as our predecessors have built for us today,” LaRue said. “I’m sorry. I can’t go on. I accept (the resignation).”

LaRue handed a printed copy of his statement to another county commissioner, who then finished reading it.

“I know you both had a vision to build a safer department for this county while trying to keep everyone involved safe,” the commissioner said. “I appreciate the service you have brought with you, as well as the new possibilities and ideas to this county.”

LaRue then said he was unhappy with the circumstances surrounding the sheriff’s and undersheriff’s resignation.

“I don’t appreciate the fact of how this has went down,” he said. “If people put a sheriff in there to bring change to this county, it’s all been wasted. I don’t see the emergency that arose Monday.”

LaRue said properly funding the sheriff’s office and jail has been a challenge for several years.

In a cost-cutting move, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections canceled contracts with 10 county jails in 2017. The contracts allowed counties to house DOC inmates, and in return, they received $32 per inmate per day.

Nowata County officials relied on the contract for a large portion of the jail’s funding — between $415,000 and $556,000 per year.

“Even with the DOC program the department was tight years ago. That has gone,” LaRue said. “On every year it’s been tougher on all sheriffs up to this date. And these last several sheriffs we’ve had, it’s been a problem to this county time and time again.

“Times have changed due to financial challenges to the sheriff’s department and jail budget.”

Turnover at the sheriff’s office more rule than exception
Barnett’s resignation got the most headlines — it was everywhere this week from the Washington Post to the New York Times, and even on NPR — but it was far from the first abrupt departure to leave the sheriff post there empty in recent years.

James Hallett served as Nowata County Sheriff for 18 years, the longest consecutive term of any sheriff in county history, but retired in 2015. He was replaced by Rick Miller on an interim basis, and Miller was elected in 2016 to a full four-year term.

But Miller didn’t make it that far. About three months after his election, Nowata County Undersheriff Billy Scott and Jail Administrator Michael School both resigned. The brothers told Miller they had some land in Kansas and they were moving there to tend it. Miller resigned a week later, citing the stressful conditions of the job that recent defections had caused — not to mention more than two dozen employees of the sheriff’s office and jail who had quit their jobs since his appointment.

The following April, Nowata County Commissioners appointed Erich Richter to replace Miller, a supposedly simple process complicated by the fact that Richter didn’t live in Nowata County, had been arrested previously and had been disciplined at two previous law enforcement jobs in Payne and Tulsa counties.

Two days later commissioners rescinded the appointment and named Sandy Hadley as interim sheriff. Her term was longer than Miller’s — she lasted about 10 months before retiring, saying she wanted to spend more time with her family and decrying the financial picture at the sheriff’s office. Hadley told county commissioners there that poor funding for the jail and sheriff’s office also played a role in her decision to retire.

Though there was seemingly plenty of time to find a replacement for Hadley — she had announced her retirement in November of the previous year — she was replaced on an interim basis by Kenny Freeman, a jailhouse janitor who had been fired as a deputy at the sheriff’s office under a previous administration.

Freeman said he was “striving … to become great” and said he planned to do things “by the book.” A number of sheriff’s office employees immediately quit following Freeman’s appointment and within days his last name became somewhat ironic — staff at the jail had accidentally released an inmate who just happened to be the stepson of previous sheriff James Hallett. Freeman told NewsOn6 he had threatened to arrest Hallett’s wife for allegedly harboring the son Freeman had accidentally freed from jail, though things ultimately calmed down.

Eight months later Freeman was an inmate himself, arrested for allegedly embezzling school supplies that had been donated by Walmart. Freeman allegedly took two pallets of items from Walmart and gave them away at a sheriff’s tent at the Nowata County Fair in an attempt to bolster his chances at election.

Freeman has since been bound over for trial, but a date has not yet been set.

Less than a month after Freeman’s arrest, Barnett was elected as sheriff. About three months later her undersheriff, Mark Kirschner, told NewsOn6 that the county jail was a danger “to inmates and employees,” and discussed a lack of running water among other things.

About three weeks later four employees were hospitalized after a dispatcher working in the jail became dizzy. Tests revealed high levels of carbon monoxide in the building, resulting in the jail’s inmates being transferred to Washington County. Less than three weeks later Barnett, Kirschner and a host of deputies resigned after Associate District Judge Carl Gibson ordered the jail re-opened and inmates placed back in their cells. Two days later Mirta Hallett was selected by county commissioners to replace Barnett as sheriff and was given this bit of advice by one of the commissioners, who said to her “Good luck.”

Sheriff’s resignation only the latest problem in Nowata County
May 16 – Sheriff James Hallett, the longest-termed sheriff in Nowata County history, retires and is replaced on an interim basis by Rick Miller.
Nov. 8 – Rick Miller elected as Nowata County Sheriff.
Feb. 28 – Nowata County Undersheriff Billy Scott and Jail Administrator Michael Scott resign.
March 6 – Rick Miller resigns, citing stress.
March 13 – Nowata County Clerk tells commissioners her office couldn’t determine how problematic the financial issues were at the sheriff’s office because their accounting procedures were so bad.
April 3 – Erich Richter appointed as interim sheriff, but he was not sworn in because he didn’t live in Nowata County.
April 5 – Sandy Hadley appointed as interim sheriff by Nowata County Commissioners after they rescind Erich Richter’s appointment.
Feb. 1 – Sandy Hadley retires, saying she wanted to spend more time with her family and citing poor funding for sheriff’s office and jail operations.
Feb. 13 – Kenny Freeman, a jailhouse janitor and former deputy who had been fired under a previous administration, was appointed as sheriff. He said he was “striving … to become great.”
Oct. 17 – Kenny Freeman is arrested by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and charged with embezzling donated school supplies. He was accused of taking school supplies — including lunch boxes, crayons and coloring books — that were donated by Walmart and giving them away at a sheriff’s booth at a local fair to promote his election bid.
Nov. 6 – Terry Sue Barnett elected sheriff, replacing Kenny Freeman.
Feb. 4 – Undersheriff Mark Kirschner tells NewsOn6 the county jail is a danger to inmates and employees.
Feb. 28 – Nowata County Jail inmates are removed from the Nowata County Jail over numerous safety concerns, including a carbon monoxide leak that that resulted in four inmates being hospitalized. The inmates were moved to the Washington County Jail.
March 18 – Terry Sue Barnett resigns, as does her undersheriff and deputies, after Associate District Judge Carl Gibson orders her to put inmates back in the Nowata County Jail.
March 20 – County commissioners select Mirta Hallett as interim sheriff to replace Barnett. Hallett, who had previously retired from the Nowata County Sheriff’s Office, told NewsOn6 she un-retired because the county was “in desperate need” of leadership at the sheriff’s office.