DA: Okla. county jail trust's 'incompetent administration' made jail dangerous

"It's never been so understaffed. It's never been so corrupt and it's never been so dangerous," the DA said

By Dale Denwalt
The Oklahoman

OKLAHOMA CITY — The hostage-taking incident Saturday at the Oklahoma County jail that ended with an inmate shot dead by police was the latest in a string of deadly incidents there since management changed hands last year.

In July, the county seized control from the sheriff's office and turned it over to the newly formed Oklahoma County Jail Trust. District Attorney David Prater said Sunday that the jail's operation is worse than it's ever been.

"It's never been so understaffed. It's never been so corrupt and it's never been so dangerous," he said.

Prater said he's filed charges against jail trust staff for contraband, and officers aren't able to do their job safely because of understaffing.

Since the trust took over operation of the jail on July 1, 2020, workers there have been fired and charged for misconduct in several cases. There also have been inmate deaths at the hands of fellow inmates, as well as some high-profile escapes.

One detainee was shot and killed Saturday as Oklahoma City police officers rescued a detention officer. The death, and jail conditions that triggered the hostage situation, have reignited the debate over living conditions and the treatment of people who are held there.

In videos taken during the incident and posted online, detainees are heard complaining about bad food, poor sanitation and other conditions that have beleaguered the jail for years.

"It's the incompetent administration of that jail. It's the incompetence of the jail trust," Prater said. "The jail trust and its administration of the Oklahoma County jail is an abject failure that has cost the lives of inmates, made the environment incredibly dangerous for law enforcement and other jail staff members."

In an emailed statement Sunday, jail trust Chair Tricia Everest called the hostage situation tragic and she commended the work of law enforcement.

Everest also pointed to recent infrastructure improvements, including replacing sewer pumps, repairing heating and air units, installation of an on-demand hot water system and introduction of a facility-wide water management system.

But more changes are needed, said jail trust member Ben Brown. Changing the culture of the Oklahoma County jail could take years, he said.

"Yesterday was a horribly terrible situation," Brown said Sunday. "And I so regret what happened and that a life was taken. I can't say that loudly enough. We all regret it."

The trust is making progress to improve conditions, he added.

"I would have told you before the trust even took over the jail that it's going to take years, at least a couple or three years, to change the culture and to get in and get control."

Brown laid blame on former Sheriff P.D. Taylor, who lost control of the jail when county commissioners voted to transfer operational control to the trust.

"The former sheriff left us in terrible shape. The building was bad anyway, but we were left in terrible shape. We're trying to dig ourselves out of a hole and my contention is we're making significant progress," Brown said.

Taylor defended his reputation, saying that during the two years he oversaw the jail as sheriff, the number of deaths fell by 82%.

"I can tell you one thing: I can go to bed and I can sleep like a baby at night because we did one hell of a job, my staff — and I think the jail trust in private would admit that. Looking back, we did one hell of a good job with the very limited amount of money we were given."

Taylor said that a lack of support from Oklahoma County commissioners forced him to spend nearly all of his time focusing on the jail, rather than on enforcing law throughout the county.

After the hostage incident ended, protests continued into the night. At one point, Jabee Williams, a performer and civil rights activist, posted a video on Twitter that showed an Oklahoma County sheriff's deputy aim what appeared to be a beanbag rifle at protesters standing just feet away.

At the same time, a voice can be heard telling people to "back up for the truck" that was leaving the jail's gated entrance.

Another activist, Jess Eddy, told The Oklahoman that the deputy pointed the gun at his chest and also at another protestor.

"We were protesting peacefully," Eddy said. "We didn't do anything to justify an officer pointing a shotgun at us. That's excessive force on its face, and that's an example of problems we see in policing in our community."

The jail also could face questions from nearby cities that send detainees there. Adam Graham, council member for The Village, said he again will ask his fellow council members to evaluate the contract they have with the jail trust.

Last year, he asked the trust for details about suicides, other deaths, and even the prevalence of bedbugs.

"I got some of that information back, and that was when I decided I was not comfortable. As an elected official and a human being, I do not feel comfortable sending people there," Graham said.

Although Cleveland County offered a better price, he said, The Village council ultimately voted to keep the Oklahoma County contract.

Conditions at the jail have been bad for so long, Graham said, that he remembers being a Boy Scout touring the jail and seeing doors that were stuck shut.

"I was young so I didn't have a lot of things to compare that to. (But) in my 15-year-old mind or whatever age I was, it was extremely horrible at that point," he said.

Graham, now 28, hasn't yet been given a tour as a city council member.


(c)2021 The Oklahoman

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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