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Most Oklahoma jails failed Health Department inspections in 2022

Matthew Ansley / Unsplash

Dozens of the state’s city and county jails have repeatedly failed inspections since 2020, endangering the safety of detainees and highlighting flaws in the state’s mental health response.

A state health department inspector found a man lying in soiled clothing during an unannounced examination of the Kiowa County Jail in early September.

Months earlier, in February 2022, an inspector cited the Bryan County Detention Center for failing to have working intercoms in every cell, raising the odds that detainees in distress would not be able to reach staff. A man detained in the facility died from a fatal methamphetamine overdose one month after the visit.

During a series of inspections in 2021 and 2022, inspectors repeatedly cited the Oklahoma County Jail for failing to conduct mental health assessments during its intake process. More than thirty detainees died inside the facility over those two years.

Oklahoma's jails are bound by a series of minimum health and safety requirements codified in state law. For instance, jail administrators must provide detainees with a minimum amount of living space and provide additional supervision of individuals whose screening indicates substance abuse or mental health issues.

The Oklahoma State Department of Health enforces those standards through annual unannounced inspections. Jails that fail inspections must submit a corrective action proposal to the state health department within 60 days or risk a formal complaint being filed with the local district attorney or attorney general’s office.

But unless their facilities are continually cited for the same repeated deficiencies, jail administrators face no formal repercussions for housing detainees in substandard conditions. The state health department filed a complaint against just one of the 78 city and county detention facilities, the Oklahoma County Jail, that failed their initial annual inspection in 2022. Three dozen facilities statewide have repeatedly failed inspections since 2020.

State jail inspectors found hundreds of violations in 2022, ranging from faulty smoke detection systems to raw sewage leaking into cells and common areas. The Hughes County Jail was cited for 48 health code violations during a March 2022 inspection, by far the most of any facility in the state last year. Erik Johnson, the district attorney for Hughes, Seminole and Pontotoc Counties who took office in January 2023, has sought to close the facility and move detainees to the Seminole County Jail because of the increasingly severe violations.

Counties and cities rely on local bonds and tax revenue to build, operate and maintain their detention facilities. In some cases, raising taxes to construct a new facility or fund repairs has proven to be an unpopular proposition among voters. A supermajority of Hughes County voters soundly rejected a 2020 ballot measure to fund the construction of a new jail.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma continues to rely on jails to house individuals facing medical or mental health crises. A federal class-action lawsuit filed in early March claims upwards of 100 Oklahomans are sitting in jail awaiting court-ordered mental health treatment. The deaths of Ronald Given in the Pottawatomie County Jail and Shannon Hanchett in the Cleveland County Jail highlighted flaws in the state’s ability to promptly and effectively provide mental health care to those in detention facilities. Last year, nearly three dozen facilities were cited for failing to conduct hourly sight checks or 15-minute checks on detainees whose screening indicated a suicide risk.

Timothy Edgemon, an assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Auburn University, said lack of funding, inadequate staff training and overcrowding contribute to unsafe jail conditions and detainee deaths. Records show twelve Oklahoma jails were over their rated capacity during inspections last year, up from seven in 2020.

“Jails were built to house people to await trial,” Edgemon said. “They weren't housed to treat mental health conditions, and the staff in them are not trained to do that. So I think all of that creates the levels of violence and the levels of suicide ideation and suicide attempts that we see in jails today and also in prisons, but particularly in jails.”

Demand for mental health and substance abuse treatment programs within local justice systems has increased following voters’ passage of State Question 780 in 2016, which reclassified some drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. While felony criminal filings fell by more than 28% in the first year after the ballot initiative took effect, misdemeanor cases increased by 13.6%, according to an analysis from Open Justice Oklahoma.

A related voter-approved ballot initiative, State Question 781, was designed to transfer funds saved from reducing the state's prison population to local justice systems for treatment programs. But until recently, the Legislature has struggled to settle on a process to calculate the savings and disburse funds to counties, leaving diversion and treatment programs in some parts of the state unfunded.

Lawmakers this year passed Senate Bill 844, which requires the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency to calculate the annual incarceration savings attributable to State Question 780 and directs the Legislature to appropriate that money to the County Community Safety Investment Fund.

The Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services is charged with overseeing the fund and sending requests for proposals to county governments. Local justice systems may seek funds to develop substance abuse treatment, diversion, employment or housing programs.

Damion Shade, the executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, said he’s hopeful the long-awaited implementation of State Question 781 will help local justice systems divert some individuals away from incarceration.

“With preventative care, there are fewer crimes on the front end and we can help people before they’re in mental health crisis, before they’re experiencing psychosis or before they commit a crime to feed their addiction,” Shade said.

On Tuesday, Gov. Kevin Stitt’s office announced the formation of the MODERN Justice Task Force. Its 11 members will review data from local jails over the next six months and offer policy recommendations to the Legislature leading up to the 2024 legislative session. Among the designees includes someone with expertise in successful diversion programs in rural areas.

“After years of focusing on statewide efforts, we’ve realized the extent of the strain our jails and sheriffs are facing and understand that reforms are needed,” House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said in a press release issued Tuesday. “By investing time and energy through the Task Force process, we can be smart about local criminal justice in ways that will ensure we are being right on crime, while at the same time providing help to those who need it.”

A searchable, sortable table of jail inspection reports is below.

Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.

Keaton Ross is a Report for America corps member who covers prison conditions and criminal justice issues for Oklahoma Watch.
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