The Tulsa Jail has been the focus of more than a dozen civil rights lawsuits filed in recent years over prisoner deaths and injuries. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

The Tulsa Jail has been the focus of more than a dozen civil rights lawsuits filed in recent years over prisoner deaths and injuries. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

The number of employees staffing Tulsa’s jail has dropped nearly 10 percent in the past year while salaries and other costs to operate the jail have risen, records show.

Meanwhile, the jail will expand from 1,650 beds to 1,930 beds in December, including a new mental health pod. However companies bidding on a new $5 million annual contract to provide medical and mental health care in the jail aren’t being asked to say how they’d deal with the expansion in their proposals.

In fact, two of three proposals state the companies would charge the county additional daily fees if the jail population rises above 1,800. The jail would exceed that population number shortly after the contract begins if the 280 new beds are filled.

Read it: Tulsa County Jail Organizational Chart

The Tulsa Jail employed 452 detention officers, supervisors and support staff as of July. That number represents a drop from 496 employees assigned to the jail last July.

The decrease in staffing occurred at a time when the jail was under scrutiny over deaths and injuries of inmates as well as serious incidents in the jail.

The Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office has worked to increase the number of jail employees in recent years after several staffing studies concluded the jail was understaffed. The number of employees jumped about 20 percent between fiscal years 2013 and 2016.

With that increase came a rise in costs. Spending on salaries, benefits, operations and other jail costs grew from $31 million to $37 million during that time.

In the past year, those two trends have diverged: The number of employees dropped by about 10 percent while costs continued to grow by about 3 percent, largely due to growth in salaries and benefits.

A special committee report presented to the Tulsa County Criminal Justice Authority Wednesday detailed the figures and suggested ways the county could save taxpayer money spent on jail operations.

A dedicated 0.25 percent sales tax covers some but not all of the existing jail’s operating revenue. Voters approved a 0.041 percent tax in 2014, which is intended to fund construction and operation of the four new pods. That tax generates about $1.7 million a year.

Dan Witham, chairman of the county’s Sales Tax Overview Committee, told the authority the increase in costs has been driven in part by former Sheriff Stanley Glanz’s decision to eliminate three steps in the detention officer payroll. When Glanz took that action, “that created a pay raise for all the people on the payroll,” he said.

tulsa county sheriff's office

Detention officers received pay raises ranging from 5-15 percent after the change, which occurred in the 2014-2015 fiscal year, Witham said. The jail’s payroll costs grew more than 15 percent that year, records show.

The report recommends transitioning higher paid deputy jobs out of the jail in exchange for more lower paid detention officers. The jail employs about 148 deputies and supervisors and about 304 detention officers.

For each deputy position the Sheriff’s Office can transition to a detention officer position in the jail, the county saves more than $36,000. If 50 deputy positions were moved to detention officers, TCSO would save $1.8 million per year, the report states,

Officials at the Sheriff’s Office have been working to accomplish that goal, it states.

The report also suggests that dozens of employees now being paid out of jail tax funds may not be performing jobs directly related to jail operations. For example, 50 deputies and four supervisors work as court guards.

“On occasion, court guards perform a function that is purely civil in nature,” the report states. “For example, if a judge hearing a protective order case between two parties requests a court guard, they will get one. If none of the parties is an inmate, this is purely civil in nature. The need for the deputy is clear, but should it be paid from CJA (tax) funds?”

Similarly, four deputies assigned to the Tulsa County Juvenile Bureau and 16 deputies are assigned to extradite prisoners from other jurisdictions.

“If a private contractor operated the jail, would the Sheriff’s Office still be in charge of extraditions? Most likely the Sheriff’s Office would still handle extraditions,” the report states.

Sand Springs Mayor Mike Burdge, a member of the Criminal Justice Authority, said he appreciated having the information contained in the report,

“This is the kind of stuff we went out in pursuit of three years ago. It’s just been a long and winding road to get there,” he said.

The authority is made up of the three county commissioners, Tulsa’s mayor and three area mayors. For several years, the authority has discussed what to do about increasing jail costs, while the county was forced to loan money to the Sheriff’s Office to cover cost overruns.

Glenpool Vice Mayor Momodou Ceesay said the authority needs to examine reducing the number of people coming into the jail.

“Something we need to look at more is how do we keep people out of jail? How do we reduce our jail population … and find other alternatives of helping those people out to be better members of our society?”

Michelle Robinette, TCSO’s chief deputy overseeing an expansion of the jail, told the authority that the Sheriff’s Office is working with a large number of community partners to reduce the jail’s population.

“We now have about 65 to 70 people representing agencies countywide” working to reduce the number of people who end up in the jail.

“Things are moving rapidly and I think probably in the next 18-24 months you will see the efforts of what we are doing take effect and the population should reduce across the board,” Robinette said.

One innovative program discussed Wednesday involved a simple idea: helping prisoners retrieve phone numbers from their cell phones.

Many people booked into jail cannot recall the phone numbers of people who would likely post bond for them. The program enables jail employees to help inmates retrieve their phones and find numbers for people who will post bond. Nearly 90 people were released from the jail in the past month through this program, the authority learned Wednesday.

Expansion progress
Robinette also updated the authority on progress of the jail expansion funded by a tax approved by voters in 2014. She said the new jail pods are still on track to open in December.

The expansion was originally estimated to cost about $9 million but that estimate has since been revised to more than $15 million.

The project is expected to add about 120 new beds designated for inmates with mental illnesses and about 160 beds for inmates held in general population.

TCSO has consistently sold the expansion to the public as a way to provide enhanced staffing, including mental health services, for mentally ill inmates in the jail. Glanz repeatedly said the expansion was needed due to an increasing number of seriously mentally ill inmates winding up in the jail.

In a 2014 Tulsa World story, Terry Simonson was quoted as stating that the new tax “will be put to use immediately to hire staff to work with the jail’s growing population of inmates with mental-health problems.”

“We will try to staff up as best we can so when the construction is done, we should be able to just move the staff and move the inmates,” said Simonson, TCSO’s governmental liaison.

However, with the new beds scheduled to come online in December, there’s no evidence the Sheriff’s Office made good on that promise. Jail staffing is now lower than it was when voters approved the tax in 2014. It’s unclear whether any additional mental health professionals have been hired.

The state is investigating TCSO’s failure to report several serious incidents as required by law.

TCSO declined a request by The Frontier for an interview about jail staffing issues. Sheriff Vic Regalado told the Criminal Justice Authority that the Sheriff’s Office is currently training 27 new detention officers.

When TCSO decided to seek new bids to provide medical and mental health care in the jail, the bidders were not asked to build in costs to provide additional mental and medical care for those new inmates. The current contractor, Armor, is paid about $5 million a year to oversee medical and mental health care in the jail.

After a recent county commission meeting, Regalado told The Frontier that issue would be dealt with through an addendum to the new contract, which apparently means the winning bidder will be asked to estimate how much it will cost to provide care for the expanded inmate population.

However that approach deprives the county of any competitive advantage offered through the bidding process. The Sheriff’s Office has been planning for and building the expansion since 2014, so it’s unclear why prospective bidders on the jail’s largest contract wouldn’t be asked to include it in their bids.

Linda Dorrell, the county’s purchasing director, told The Frontier on Wednesday the request for proposals for the jail medical contract didn’t include the expansion because the Sheriff’s Office could not provide information the bidders would need to forecast costs. Dorrell said she had to move forward with the process without including the expanded number of beds.

The county is trying to put together a committee to evaluate bids, though Dorrell said she is having difficulty finding a mental health professional willing to serve on the committee. The current schedule calls for the committee to choose a winning bidder by Sept. 1 and a new contract to become effective Nov. 1.