Troubled Oklahoma County Jail Could Be Operated By Private Company Under Plan Being Considered

Apr 19, 2019

Control of the state’s largest county jail could be placed under the authority of a public-private trust according to a plan considered Thursday by an Oklahoma County advisory group.

Members of the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council voted to recommend county commissioners consider a draft proposal to give oversight of the Oklahoma County Jail’s operations to a trust made up of one county commissioner, the county sheriff and seven private citizens.

Under the proposal, the seven appointees would be chosen by the county’s three commissioners.

Twelve advisory council members voted yes; six chose not to vote.

The jail has a sullied history. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division has inspected the jail multiple times since 2003, and the agency concluded the jail’s conditions violated prisoners’ constitutional rights.

Currently, the jail is run by the county sheriff’s office, and county commissioners pay for the jail’s operation. If the trust model considered by the advisory council were adopted, the jail could be operated by the winner of a bidding process. Members of the trust could also hire a jail administrator to run the jail without opening a bidding contest.

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater argued that the Board of County Commissioners should have discussed a jail trust before the advisory council made a recommendation.
Credit Quinton Chandler / StateImpact Oklahoma

Advisory council debate

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater sits on the advisory council, and he strongly objected to holding a vote.

Prater argued a proposal for a jail trust should begin in a public Board of County Commissioners meeting, and that is something that has not happened.

“I believe it’s more appropriate for the Board of County Commissioners to consider what type of a jail trust — if in fact they do choose to go in that direction — before this body were to recommend any action on whatever jail trust they choose to create,” Prater said.

County officials say there are multiple types of jail trusts. One would require a county-wide vote, but the type of trust advanced by the advisory council can be established through a majority-vote by county commissioners.

Oklahoma County’s Chief Public Defender, Bob Ravitz, shared some of the district attorney’s concerns but said a jail trust was first recommended to the county seven years ago, and it’s time for commissioners to pursue it.

“I hope that this document is changed in a public meeting …,” Ravitz said. “But if we don’t put something forward, it’s going to be business as usual.”

Sheriff’s questions

Oklahoma County Sheriff P.D. Taylor said he didn’t find out the advisory council would be considering a recommendation for the jail trust until days before the vote. He was surprised and has a lot of questions about how it would change his role managing the jail and how it would affect funding for his office.

If county commissioners vote to create a jail trust under the model introduced by the advisory council, the sheriff’s office could win the bidding process to decide who would manage the jail. The bid for the jail’s operations could also be won by a private company. In either event, the jail’s operator would answer to the trust.

Taylor claimed private prison operators have already been contacted to find out if they would be willing to bid for a contract to run the jail.

StateImpact hasn’t been able to confirm the sheriff’s claim. Two of Oklahoma County’s three commissioners said Thursday’s meeting was the first time they’d heard potential jail operators may have been contacted.

“I’m concerned about my employees (and) what happens to them,” Taylor said. “Are they going to be terminated? Are they going to be employees of the trust? Are they going to lose their health care benefits?”

Oklahoma County Sheriff P.D. Taylor abstained from Thursday’s vote because he didn’t know how the proposed trust would affect his office and employees.
Credit Quinton Chandler / StateImpact Oklahoma

Many counties in Oklahoma do not fully fund their sheriff’s officesand local jails with tax revenue. That means the sheriff must raise the additional money to operate the county jail and pay for law enforcement costs. Many times that is done by generating money from inside the jail by charging for things such as commissary, housing inmates from other counties and inmate phone calls.

Taylor said if a private company takes over jail operations, he’s unsure how he would raise the money to pay for 110 of his employees.

“I’m talking patrol division, I’m talking SROs (School Resource Officers), I’m talking dispatch, I’m talking investigators …,” Taylor said.

Taylor says those officers are especially needed in the county’s unincorporated area — where they are the only law enforcement.

Oklahoma County District 3 Commissioner Kevin Calvey, center, voted in favor of recommending a jail trust be considered by the Board of County Commissioners.
Credit Quinton Chandler / StateImpact Oklahoma

County commissioners have the power 

District 3 County Commissioner Kevin Calvey also sits on the advisory council, and he voted in favor of recommending a jail trust to the Board of County Commissioners.

Calvey has been a vocal supporter of county jail reform. He said he looks forward to considering a trust if the subject is added to the Board of County Commissioners’ agenda.

Any elected county official or department head can add an item to the board’s agenda.

District 1 County Commissioner Carrie Blumert said the advisory group’s recommendation is not the final word. The Board of County Commissioners will decide the jail’s fate.

Blumert has also been a vocal advocate for jail reform. However, she couldn’t say whether or not a jail trust would be a positive change for the county. Blumert also pointed out the current commissioners haven’t discussed how a trust would work.

“All those discussions have to happen in an open meeting …,” Blumert said.

Blumert said the potential success of a jail trust depends on who is chosen to sit on it. She said there would be negative consequences if a trust’s members have extreme political agendas.

“If you have people who sit on a trust who care about good government and care about making a jail as humane and as efficient as possible, then that’s good,” Blumert said.