Okla. jail to install ‘site check’ technology amid staffing shortages
Chronic turnover and staff shortages have prompted the sheriff to implement technology to help keep inmates safe in the wake of violations cited by the health department
By Mindy Ragan Wood
The Norman Transcript, Okla.
NORMAN, Okla. — Chronic turnover and staff shortages have prompted Cleveland County Sheriff Chris Amason to implement technology to help keep inmates safe in the wake of violations cited by the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
The Transcript obtained jail inspection reports from May 2022 and January 2023, which found jail staff failed to check or document checks on inmates at risk of suicide and health conditions.
The health department, required by state law to conduct unannounced jail inspections, noted failure to site check inmates on Dec. 8, when Shannon Hanchett was found dead in her cell. Hanchett, 38, was jailed for making false 911 calls, but a Norman police officer noted she appeared to experience a mental health episode. A second jail death was reported on Dec. 20 — Kathryn Milano, 66.
In May 2022, the health department discovered in two cells that 76 site checks were “not documented” for 15-minute suicide site checks.
Despite a growth in jail population by an additional 162 inmates, in January the inspection report showed only 18 site checks were not documented for suicide watch on Dec. 5, 6, 19 and on Jan. 23.
Three hourly site checks were missed on Dec. 7 and on the day of Hanchett’s death, Dec. 8, the report states the log for one cell was “incomplete,” but provided for the hours between 12 a.m. to 9:33 a.m. “The jail administrator acknowledged that sight checks were missed,” on Dec. 8, the report added.
While it was not clear in which cell Hanchett was detained, nor if she had been placed on suicide watch, the state medical examiner found she likely died due to heart problems. A district court judge had ordered a mental health evaluation before she died.
Both Amason and Executive Director of the Oklahoma Sheriffs Association, Ray McNair, admitted site checks are a challenge, but that a failure to document a site check does not always mean a site check was missed.
“If they’re feeding inmates, in a sense you’re doing a site check at the same time,” McNair said. “But then maybe nobody goes over there and writes down the site check was done. So, you’re looking at training. A lot of people they get sidetracked and it doesn’t get logged. Things happen in a jail. You’re living in chaos 24 hours a day, screaming, yelling and it’s constant. To miss something in a jail log is a violation, but it’s going to happen because they’re human.”
Amason said training, with staff turnover, is always a challenge but the inspection report findings are no less serious.
“We take any deficiency seriously,” Amason said. “One of our biggest issues is recruiting and training qualified staff.”
The only additional complaints in both inspection reports were for inspections of fire suppression equipment. Amason said all inspection violations have been resolved.
While Amason declined to speak about the circumstances surrounding Hanchett’s death due to pending litigation, he did speak about measures his office is taking to address challenges to site checks.
In April, Cleveland County Commissioners approved a contract with Guardian RFID to install and train jail officers on how to use a digital site check system.
“Detention officers will have a device to scan to touch the cell to show the exact time the site check was done and who did it,” he said. “It will make it easier for us to document it and then make sure that we’re in compliance. We’ll be able to see the deficiencies in real time and a supervisor will be notified if a site check is missed, right then instead of at the end of a shift. We’re excited about this. There’s no quick fix, but we’re trying the best we can to help solve the problem.”
Last year, the jail purchased ankle monitors to track the heart rate or sudden fall of an inmate who is at risk of suicide or serious health conditions. However, the jail does not have enough monitors for every detainee, Amason said.
In February, Commissioners approved a jail contract amendment to increase the number of medical staff provided by Turn Key Health, Inc.
Amason told The Transcript the amendment was to address the growing jail population and the need for increased medical staff to serve them.
Commissioners have also earmarked $8 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds for behavioral health services at the jail and $5 million for juvenile detention.
Challenges jails face statewide
According to a new report compiled by Oklahoma Watch, most jails in Oklahoma fail to pass state health inspections.
The article cited staffing problems due to lack of funding, often where voters have declined to approve bonds to fix jails.
Amason said he’s lucky to have voter support for bonds and special sales tax revenue in Cleveland County.
“We’re fortunate that we pay a fair wage,” Amason said. “But it’s still hard to keep them.”
McNair said sheriffs across the state complain to the association and ask for its help to solve chronic problems like the labor shortage.
“What most detention officers, if they’re good, they go for and look for an opportunity to become a patrol deputy,” he said. “They work in the jail first, then go to patrol or CLEET (Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training).”
Even then, McNair said sheriffs can’t keep patrol staffed either.
Jails are often starved for revenue, in part because inmates who have been sentenced to state prison are held in county jails by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections at a daily rate that is about half the cost to house and feed them.
Amason said the state is slow to pick up their inmates because county jails save them money.
McNair said counties have “changed all the legislation we can change to make DOC pass our current rate, but the state is fighting us tooth and nail to keep that from happening.”
Other jails are lucky enough to enjoy “generous” daily pay contracts from Tribes in eastern Oklahoma, but west of central Oklahoma, including Oklahoma and Cleveland County, jails don’t have that luxury, McNair said.
(c)2023 The Norman Transcript (Norman, Okla.)
Visit The Norman Transcript (Norman, Okla.) at www.normantranscript.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.