Oklahoma Sheriff Quits Along With Most Of Her Staff Over Poor Jail Conditions

Mar 21, 2019

Former Oklahoma sheriff Terry Sue Barnett stood before a small crowd of reporters on Monday and made a shocking announcement: She would be resigning over deteriorating conditions at the Nowata County jail.

Then her county undersheriff, every one of the deputies, the head dispatcher, and even the canine officer quit.

Their resignations came shortly after associate District Judge Carl Gibson ordered the the county jail to be immediately reopened, despite Barnett deeming it unsafe. Judge Gibson threatened to hold Barnett in contempt of court if she didn’t bring the inmates back.

“I did what was right, and I’m humbled that my staff followed me,” Barnett tells Here & Now’s Robin Young.

“Number one, it’s a 100-year-old building,” she says. There [are] mold problems in that jail, and on the 28th of February, they had a carbon monoxide leak with levels that were tested at 18. It’s my understanding, 20 is fatal. All inmates, we evacuated, and we also had four employees that were actually taken to the hospital for carbon monoxide poisoning.”

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These problems led Barnett to deem the jail unsafe for inmates, and she ordered them moved to a temporary facility after the carbon monoxide leak. Not only did she see the mold, carbon monoxide, exposed electrical wires and plumbing problems as massive health risks, she says the jail’s conditions do not comply with constitutional standards for imprisonment.

In early March, an auditor from the American Correctional Association solidified Barnett’s claims. After touring the jail, the auditor found enough problems to fill out a 69-page assessment, suggesting that an entirely new jail be built.

She couldn’t reopen the facility “in good conscience” for multiple reasons outlined in her resignation letter. In addition to health risks, she writes in her resignation statement that the jail lacks adequate funding and mandated fire alarms.

And yet, the problem-plagued Nowata County jail will be back in business soon.

Barnett says she talked with Nowata County Commissioner Burke LaRue on Thursday. LaRue informed her that the interim sheriff said they will “paint everything” in the jail, and they feel confident they can “bring somebody in that will actually … pass inspection,” Barnett says.

For now, the problem still exists. But amidst the commotion of her resignation and the multiple others within the sheriff’s department, she remains steadfast in her opinion.

“I truly believe that opening the jail is not the proper solution,” she says.



Ciku Theuri produced this interview, edited it for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Serena McMahon adapted it for web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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