Cell by Cell: A teenage suicide sheds light on a lack of oversight for juveniles in county jails

Oklahoma jails that hold minors aren’t subject to the same standards or state oversight as juvenile detention centers.

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An open-air basketball court at the Oklahoma County Detention Center is used to provide recreation time for juvenile detainees. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier
Before his death, 16-year old John Leroy Daniel Applegate was secluded from other juveniles in a cell in the Oklahoma County Detention Center.

The teenager was also placed on suicide watch intermittently during his time at the detention center before jailers ultimately found him unresponsive in his cell in April, said County Commissioner Carrie Blumert.

The death of the teenager after he attempted to hang himself in his cell has raised questions about the oversight of juveniles awaiting trial at county jails in the state.

In Oklahoma, minors charged as adults or youthful offenders for violent offenses, including robbery, rape and second-degree murder can be held at a county jail instead of a juvenile detention facility.

The juveniles at the Oklahoma County jail are kept separate from adult detainees. The jail also provides juveniles with recreation time and basic educational instruction, but Oklahoma jails that hold minors aren’t subject to the same standards or state oversight as juvenile detention centers.

“I have started asking some big questions — like do we even need juveniles in our facility even if they are charged as adults,” Blumert said. “No matter what their charges are, I believe if they are juveniles, they should be kept at our juvenile facility.”

In the wake of Applegate’s death, Blumert and Sheriff P.D. Taylor have asked a state oversight agency, the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth, to review Oklahoma County’s policies for housing juveniles in the county jail.

The Office of Juvenile Oversight, which falls under the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth, only investigates juvenile conditions at jails if it receives a complaint. Before Applegate’s death, the agency had not received a complaint involving the Oklahoma County Detention Center in at least two years, said OCCY assistant director Mark James.

Teenager faced charges of rape, assault

Facing felony rape charges, 16-year old Applegate was found unconscious, hanging from a light fixture in his cell at the Oklahoma County Detention Center on April 23.

John Leroy Daniel Applegate

Applegate had been held at the jail in lieu of a $150,000 bond since Feb. 4 on charges of first-degree rape, rape by instrumentation, assault with a dangerous weapon, obstructing an officer and resisting arrest.

The Frontier is not reporting details of the rape charges and other information that could identify the victim.

The assault, obstruction and resisting arrest charges stemmed from when Choctaw Police detained Applegate at his home on a rape complaint on Feb. 3. Applegate pulled a BB gun out of a bedside drawer and attempted to take aim at the officers, according to a probable cause affidavit.

Police initially believed the BB gun was a semi-automatic handgun, according to the affidavit. One of the officers knocked the gun from Applegate’s hand and wrestled the teenager to the ground. The other officer used his Taser on Applegate.

Applegate was charged as a youthful offender, and the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s office filed a notice with the court that it would seek an adult sentence.

State law requires a court or the local Juvenile Bureau to give permission before a juvenile is placed in a county jail. The Oklahoma County Juvenile Bureau did not respond to questions about its process for determining which juvenile offenders are sent to the county jail.

Less oversight for juveniles in county jails

Blumert met with jail officials this week this week to discuss Applegate’s death. She said she believes staff followed state law and what policies the county has in place, but it just wasn’t enough.

At juvenile detention facilities, Oklahoma law requires staff to maintain “close and in visual contact” with residents and to check on juveniles confined to their rooms for disciplinary reasons every 15 minutes. But at county jails, the law only requires sight checks once every hour.

Oklahoma County’s policy exceeds this standard, requiring sight checks for juveniles at the jail every 30 minutes.

A detention officer at the jail checked on Applegate shortly after midnight on April 23. Staff administering medication to inmates discovered Applegate about 30 minutes later in his cell hanging from a light fixture with a towel around his neck.

Because of Applegate’s charges and his behavior in the jail, he was restricted from being held with other juveniles and he was also intermittently placed on suicide watch, Blumert said.

Jail policies would have required a sight check on Applegate every 15 minutes at times he was on suicide watch. He also received mental health services in the jail, Blumert said.

“He was on and off of suicide watch, but when someone is on suicide watch, you are depriving them of a lot,” Blumert said. “There’s a fine line between keeping them safe, making sure they aren’t harming themselves and violating their civil rights.”

Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office declined to answer some of The Frontier’s questions about Applegate’s confinement in the jail and why he was held in a cell by himself, citing privacy laws that protect health information.

“Juveniles, just like any other inmate, can be single-celled for numerous reasons,” Mark Myers, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, said in an email.

Such reasons could include protective custody issues related to a detainee’s safety, the safety of others or gang issues, Myers said.

The standards that Oklahoma jails must abide by when housing juveniles are less stringent than the rules juvenile detention centers are required to follow.

Jails and city lockups follow rules established by the state’s health department. Juvenile detention facilities have a separate set of rules under the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs.

Along with providing more supervision, state law requires a higher level of staffing for juvenile detention facilities.

While jails are allowed to staff one detention officer for every 40 inmates, juvenile detention centers must have one employee for every seven youth during waking hours and one for every 16 youth during sleeping hours.

Jail previously cited for lack of suicide prevention measures

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Justice noted a lack of adequate suicide prevention measures at the Oklahoma County Detention Center, including fixtures in cells such as ventilation grills and other features that could be used for detainees to hang themselves.

“Further, juvenile cells are particularly troubling, because they are painted dark colors, making visibility of the inside of the cell difficult,” the report said. “The bunks are affixed in a manner that makes it possible for a juvenile to tie a ligature to the structure in order to commit suicide.”

The Oklahoma County Detention Center has been under federal oversight since 2009 after Department of Justice inspectors found numerous civil rights violations at the facility.

In an email, Myers said that since 2008, the suicide cells at the jail have “been modified to provide decreased chance for self-harm.”

“[The] juvenile pod and cells were one of the first things that Sheriff PD Taylor addressed when he was elected,” Myers said.

The juvenile area of the jail has been painted in a “brighter, less depressing color scheme,” he said.

State recently updated standards for juveniles held in jails

The Oklahoma State Department of Health’s  Jail Inspection Division, with input from OJA, is tasked with establishing standards for adult jails and lockups that detain juveniles.

Any jail that houses juveniles must be authorized by the Oklahoma State Department of Health, which inspects jails. The agency recently amended state jail standards and clarified rules for adult jails holding youths.

James Joslin is the assistant deputy director of protective health services at the department and oversees the jail inspection division. He said part of the goal for the new standards, which an OJA representative helped write, was to improve coordination between agencies.

The new rules state the health department must work with OJA to certify detention centers for holding juveniles based on the facility’s compliance with state law, which includes standards for youth supervision and separation from adults.

OJA oversees juvenile detention centers, but has limited control over county jails and lockups, which are operated by cities and counties. However, the agency does monitor adult facilities for compliance with the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (JJDP) Act, OJA spokesman Michael McNutt said.

“In adult facilities, when a Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention monitor notices a violation, OJA is advised and a determination is made if the violation is an isolated incident or indicates a pattern or practice,” McNutt said in an email.

“OJA can provide additional education/training to the adult facility staff and then notifies, if warranted, the Oklahoma State Department of Health’s jail inspection division.”

In cases of an adult jail demonstrating a pattern of repeated violations, OJA might complete a full violation report and assign the jail to complete a corrective plan of action to bring its operations into compliance with the JJDP Act.

Further reading: 

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

Cell by Cell: Oklahoma has 1.5 state inspectors for its 131 jails

Cell by Cell: Tracking every jail death in Oklahoma

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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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