Oklahoma County’s jail is run by the local sheriff, just like most counties in the state.
As news headlines about overcrowding, inmate deaths, lawsuits and maintenance issues became increasingly common, county officials and civic leaders called for a change in jail leadership.
Earlier this year, reform-minded county commissioners and government officials created a jail trust – a more independent governing body made up of seven private citizens and two elected county officials.
Now, the trust decides how the jail’s money is spent and who will operate it.
The change is finally happening, but it has raised a question several counties across the state have struggled with: what is the best way to run a jail?
Tricia Everest chairs the new Oklahoma County jail trust. Everest says they have three options for who can run the jail.
The trust could sign a contract with a private company that specializes in detention, it could allow the sheriff to continue operating the jail or it could hire a jail administrator – an employee who would report directly to the trustees.
Everest says the jail’s culture needs to change. She didn’t want to work with a private company because she believes the focus would be on making a profit and reform would be difficult because the company would already know how it would want to run the jail.
“We really want somebody that can be innovative and recognize that this is an opportunity for Oklahoma County to be one of the most innovative progressive counties in the nation,” Everest said.
The chairwoman thinks the best option is to hire an independent administrator who has corrections experience, is not weighed down by years of politics and is willing to tap into outside resources to create a gold standard jail.
Another jail’s experience
Oklahoma County is not the first to change management of its jail. There are at least six other counties in the state with jail trusts that decide who operates the county detention facility.
After it was formed, the Tulsa County trust chose a private company to run its jail but after deaths and allegations of mismanagement drew criticism, the trust opted to give operations back to the sheriff.
Sheriff Vic Regalado came into office after those changes, and he chose to hire his own jail administrator – someone with years of corrections experience.
Regalado says his administrator’s knowledge and experience with lawsuits, prisoner management, detention officer turnover and the many other challenges that come with managing a jail are invaluable.
“There’s a lot that would’ve been too much for myself to handle on top of everything else that I have to deal with,” Regalado said.
The sheriff says since he hired an administrator, the number of jail deaths has plummeted, the financial outlook has improved and the county is being sued less.
However, Regalado says what works for Tulsa County may not be best for everyone. Regalado advises county leaders trying to improve their jails to setup sustainable funding and decide what kind of jail they want.
“We run a direct supervision (model), which most jails do today,” Regalado said. “Our inmates walk freely.”
Running a jail that allows prisoners to walk freely in a day room alongside their jailers is different from leaving prisoners in cells most of the day. Regalado says it made sense to hire an administrator who is experienced with that type of atmosphere.
Administrator vs. Sheriff
Oklahoma County Commissioner and jail trust member Kevin Calvey wants to bring some of the changes made in Tulsa County to Oklahoma County’s jail.
“I’d like to see more humane treatment of inmates,” Calvey said.
Calvey and other trust members are frustrated with multiple shortcomings in the jail, such as prisoners spending most of the day in their cells.
He’s also calling for better working conditions for jail employees to combat a high turnover rate and a shortage in detention officers.
Calvey says the trust’s best chance to improve conditions is to hire an experienced jail administrator trained in corrections.
However, the proposed changes are creating uncertainty for current jail employees.
P.D. Taylor has been Oklahoma County Sheriff since 2017. He’s worried about his employees.
“Are they going to lose their retirement,” Taylor asked. “Are they going to lose their health care benefits?”
Taylor is also a member of the trust, and he was one of two people who voted against hiring an administrator. He says it will create another level of bureaucracy, and he thinks eventually the trust and its administrator will realize the jail needs more funding
If they get it, he says one of the consequences could be that the sheriff’s already cash-strapped office could lose funding for patrols and other services it provides the county.
“Oklahoma County … they’ve always forced us to pay for some of the law enforcement positions out of special revenue funds which are dwindling to nothing,” Taylor said.
Commissioner Calvey says that nothing will change for the employees, and he argues the sheriff’s office has been given more than enough money to handle all of its duties.
He doesn’t want the sheriff to manage the jail’s funding because he believes the sheriff’s other responsibilities drain attention and money from the jail.
In the past, Taylor has said that providing services such as commissary and telephones are a way the sheriff’s office has been able to generate revenue to perform other duties.
Calvey says an administrator won’t have to contend with responsibilities outside the jail like the sheriff does.
“So you have created more specialization and professionalism in operating that jail,” Calvey said. “That’s their sole duty. There’s no incentive for the trust, particularly hiring a jail administrator, to funnel money into some other function.
Budget documents show this year, the sheriff’s office has been appropriated $10.07 million for law enforcement outside of jail operations.
The Oklahoma County Jail Trust is taking applications for an administrator and may have the position filled by the end of the year.