Lawmaker calls for 'federal takeover' of Okla. county jail

"Lives are at stake every single day at the Oklahoma County jail," Rep. Jason Lowe said

By Carmen Forman
The Oklahoman

OKLAHOMA CITY — An Oklahoma City lawmaker is calling for federal intervention at the Oklahoma County jail after nearly a dozen inmates have died in the facility in the past nine months.

Citing "inhumane conditions" at the jail, Rep. Jason Lowe, D- Oklahoma City, and members of the Legislative Black Caucus are calling for the U.S. Justice Department to take over control of the facility from the trust that operates the jail.

"I'm asking for a federal takeover," Lowe said. "Lives are at stake every single day at the Oklahoma County jail."

The jail has been under federal supervision since 2009, but Lowe is asking the federal government to take its oversight to the next level in light of what he called a dangerous and hostile environment within the facility. The Justice Department last inspected the jail in 2018.

Last week, Lowe sent a letter seeking federal assistance to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland. He has not yet received a response.

A criminal defense attorney, Lowe said he visits the jail often for work

A death in the jail last week was the 11th inmate death since the jail trust took over operation of the facility from the Oklahoma County sheriff's office July 1.

"It is clear that what has taken place at the Oklahoma County jail is a civil rights violation that deserves the attention of our federal government," Lowe said.

In response, Tricia Everest, chairwoman of the Oklahoma County Jail Trust, invited state lawmakers to tour the jail and discuss their concerns with members of the trust.

"We will always cooperate with any oversight," she said.

Lowe also called for a local sales tax to foot the bill for building a new jail. Such a tax increase would have to be approved at the county level, however, not in the Oklahoma Legislature.

The Justice Department could petition a federal judge to appoint a receiver to take over administration of the facility, which also could result in the county being forced to build a new jail.

Rep. Ajay Pittman, D- Oklahoma City, called for legislators to receive data on the number of jail deaths and "inhumane incidents" that have occurred in the facility in the past five years.

The conditions of the jail pose a threat to inmates, guards and visitors to the facility, Pittman said.

"Whether you work there or you're detained there until your court date, you should be safe," she said.

The jail trust tried to meet virtually Monday afternoon but didn't get far into the agenda.

Everest restarted the meeting after 35 minutes because of public access issues that brought an outcry from activists.

"There will be legal action taken. This is illegal," one said.

Everest stopped the meeting altogether a few minutes later because of audio problems. The trust will try to meet again Wednesday.

In a statement afterward, Everest apologized for "any inconvenience this has caused."

She said the trust had gone to new procedures for its meetings in an attempt to improve decorum.

Those procedures are in compliance with the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act, she said.


(c)2021 The Oklahoman

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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