Okla. jail officials blame short staffing, poor infrastructure after inmate killed

The incident focused a new spotlight on the 30-year-old jail, which has long been plagued with complaints about sanitation, flooding, food and safety

By Dale Denwalt
The Oklahoman

OKLAHOMA CITY — Four days after Oklahoma County Jail detainees took a guard hostage while demanding better living conditions, officials deflected blame onto a staffing shortage and longstanding infrastructure deficiencies.

The deadly incident Saturday focused a new spotlight on the 30-year-old jail, which has long been plagued with complaints about sanitation, flooding, food and safety for the 1,600 or so people locked up in the 13-story tower.

Jail Administrator Greg Williams and Oklahoma County Jail Trust Chair Tricia Everest said they are working to correct problems as they arise while chipping away at a long list of repairs and upgrades they say was inherited last year when the trust was handed control.

In a press conference Wednesday at the jail, where an inmate was killed Saturday by Oklahoma City police after taking the detention officer hostage, Williams and Everest said they are also reviewing reports by the state Health Department and the jail's healthcare provider that conditions there are substandard. They had little to say about those reports on Wednesday.

Detention officers received a 10% pay raise in February to just over $3,000 a month, and the Jail Trust has approved several 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.

Williams also said the jail tries to fix problems as they become known. Just a few days before the incident, he said, jail staff talked to every detainee in the pod where the hostage-taking happened while checking toilets, telephones, sinks and showers.

"Some of the reports that I hear about make it sound like that this is a widespread, continuing kind of thing and I think most of those are isolated incidents," he said.

The inmate killed Saturday was Curtis Montrell Williams, 34. He had been locked up since April 2019 after being charged with being in illegal possession of a gun because of past felony convictions.

Some 68 officers with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections have joined 330 full-time jail staff to bolster numbers. The county is seeking to hire new jail employees to fill 70 full-time positions that are funded but not filled.

"That's a huge deal. It'll provide us additional staff to do escorts, to do cell searches," along with handing out medicine and food, Williams said.

The detention officer taken hostage Saturday was alone at the time collecting food trays, Williams said, correcting earlier reports that he was accompanied by a health care staff member. Williams said it's common practice for officers to be alone while performing routine tasks.

Williams said he reached out to the detention officer several times but hasn't spoken to him yet, and he didn't know whether the officer wants to return to work. The officer walked out of the jail Saturday under his own power and was taken to the hospital for treatment.

Another inmate was injured during the incident; Williams described that injury as more of a scratch that was treated that night.

Williams directed further questions about the incident and shooting to the Oklahoma City Police Department, which is handling the investigation. He did not elaborate on how the officer was subdued by the inmate.


(c)2021 The Oklahoman

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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