Population Reduction Could Help Improve Oklahoma County Jail Conditions

Apr 14, 2021

When U.S. Department of Justice investigators inspected the Oklahoma County Detention Center in April 2007, they discovered that severe overcrowding was causing significant harm to detainees. 

“Throughout the facility, we found detainees sleeping on the floor and three or four detainees locked into two-man cells,” investigators wrote in a 2008 report that found conditions inside the facility did not meet constitutional standards. “The detainees spend nearly 24 hours per day in these cramped quarters.”

The jail’s population has dropped by about a third over the past 12 years — from 2,412 in June 2009 to 1,595 on March 31. The Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council, a group tasked with recommending solutions to reduce the jail’s population, attributes the decline to changes in state law and an expansion of local diversion programs

What hasn’t changed since the late 2000s is the jail’s bed shortage. Several cells remain unoccupied because of structural deficiencies and security concerns, forcing inmates into extremely confined spaces. 

On Feb. 4, state health department investigators found that up to three detainees were being held in 49-square-foot cells designed to house one person. State law requires that a three-person cell have at least 80 square feet of living space. Investigators also reported a lack of sufficient lighting and infestation of bed bugs inside the cells. The jail had a population of 1,712 at the time of inspection. 

The facility opened in 1991 and was built to hold up to 1,200 detainees. It has a maximum rated capacity of 2,890 from the state fire marshal. 

Letha Hrdlicka’s son David was booked into the jail about four months ago. She said David, charged in connection with a drive-by shooting, was forced to sleep on the floor for six weeks without a mattress. 

“He had to use a sheet and lay on the floor by the toilet,” Hrdlicka said. “The toilets back up and there’s sewer water by the floor.”

Justice reform advocates and family members of detainees say the crowded conditions drive frustration and may contribute to violence. Members of the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority tasked with overseeing the jail, commonly known as the Jail Trust, say low staffing makes it difficult to monitor every inmate. 

Low staffing and mounting frustration among detainees culminated in a March 27 incident where detainees housed on the jail’s 10th floor took a detention officer hostage. Detainees, who streamed part of the incident on Facebook Live, say they captured officer Daniel Misquez, who was working by himself in the unit, to protest poor food quality, a lack of showers and plumbing issues. 

On Friday, Oklahoma City police released video footage of the incident, which shows detainees striking Misquez multiple times while he sat handcuffed. About two hours after Misquez was taken hostage, dozens of Oklahoma City police officers arrived at the scene. 

Curtis Williams, a 34-year-old detainee awaiting trial on 2019 gun and rape charges, was holding a makeshift knife to Misquez’s neck when officers arrived. Two Oklahoma City police officers, Lt. Coy Gilbert and Officer Kevin Kuhlman, shot and killed Williams. Both have been placed on paid administrative leave pending a department investigation. Misquez was treated at a local hospital for non life-threatening injuries and released, according to police. 

In the wake of the incident, the Jail Trust has faced heightened criticism from local activistscounty commissioners and District Attorney David Prater. The trust took over management of the jail from the county sheriff last July. 

Tricia Everest, chair of the Jail Trust, said during a press conference last week that the trust is committed to improving conditions but needs more time to address long-standing maintenance and staffing issues. 

“The other night [March 27] was probably scary for anyone who was working there, and we are certainly taking it very seriously,” Everest said. 

In addition to being overcrowded, the jail’s poor design makes it difficult for staff to see through every cell door and ensure the safety of inmates. Proponents for building a new jail say it would be the most effective way to address security concerns, reduce overcrowding and chip away at the facility’s high inmate mortality rate

County officials have previously pitched ideas to close the current jail facility, with no success.  

In 2015, then-Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel introduced a plan to fund construction of a new, $235 million county jail through a temporary half-cent sales tax. The proposal never advanced to a citizen vote. 

Since then, county officials haven’t entertained a proposal to fund a new county jail. A future effort would require citizen support, hundreds of millions of dollars in special sales tax revenue and years of construction. 

A quicker solution to improve conditions, advocates and officials say, would be to significantly reduce the current jail’s population. Such an effort would require judicial action to reduce bond amounts and divert more defendants charged with nonviolent crimes away from the jail. The Jail Trust itself doesn’t have the power to reduce the facility’s population. 

About 80% of Oklahoma County Jail detainees are awaiting trial, according to an analysis by the Vera Institute of Justice. The remaining inmates are serving out short misdemeanor sentences or awaiting transfer to a Department of Corrections facility. 

Ben Brown, a member of the Jail Trust, said a 25% reduction to 1,200 detainees would alleviate pressure on staff and make speedy meal delivery and regular recreation time a more realistic possibility. The trust would still need to hire and retain more staff, Brown said, but the situation would not be as dire. 

“Not everybody in the jail is dangerous and going to hold hostages like what happened on Saturday [March 27],” Brown said. “If we could rearrange things a little bit, absolutely we want more quality time for recreation and daylight and fresh air.” 

Chris Johnston, an activist and spokesman of the newly formed Oklahoma Coalition Against People Abuse group, wants to see the jail’s population drop to 1,200 by the end of May. The group has vowed to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the jail operators if the population doesn’t decline and living conditions don’t improve. 

In addition to improving conditions and calming frustration among detainees, Johnson said reducing the population makes sense because it would save Oklahoma County’s local judicial system millions of dollars. The jail doesn’t have a dedicated revenue source for maintenance and repairs and relies on a combination of county appropriations and sheriff’s office fines and fees to fund operations. 

“It takes thousands of dollars to feed people, clothe them, provide all of the utilities,” Johnston said. “It just doesn’t make fiscal sense.” 

Expanding pretrial release generally does not harm public safety, according to a November 2020 report from the Prison Policy Initiative. Researchers found that four states and nine cities and counties that eliminated cash bail or made pretrial release more accessible saw decreases or negligible increases in their crime rate after the reforms were implemented. 

In 2017, New Jersey passed legislation that virtually eliminated cash bail. The state’s pretrial jail population dropped 50% from 2015 to 2018. In that same period, violent crime dropped 16% and there was little difference in the number of defendants arrested while awaiting trial. 

Facing the threat of COVID-19, local justice systems across the U.S. moved quickly last March to expand pretrial release and reduce their jail population.

The Oklahoma County sheriff asked local law enforcement agents to cite and release suspects accused of minor crimes. The jail’s population dropped 12% within weeks, from around 1,700 at the start of March 2020 to 1,500 by the end of the month. 

Counties with similar populations saw even more dramatic reductions. 

On March 16, 2020, a Hamilton County, Ohio judge authorized the county sheriff to release all “nonviolent, low-level” detainees due to COVID-19. By March 27, the jail’s population had dropped by nearly half, from 1,600 to 846. The population reduction allowed jail staff to house prisoners one to a cell. Hamilton County is home to Cincinnati, the state’s third-largest city. 

The mass release in Hamilton County wasn’t without problems. A defendant charged with murder was mistakenly released following a bond calculation error but was quickly apprehended. 

In Multnomah County, Oregon, home to Portland, the jail population dropped 30% from mid-March through mid-April after police stopped booking defendants accused of nonviolent misdemeanors. The District Attorney’s office also approved the release of prisoners who had two weeks or less remaining on their sentence. 

As economies have reopened and the justice system has resumed operations, many counties have struggled to keep their jail populations down. Hamilton County’s jail population stood at 1,385 on April 7, a 14% reduction since mid-March 2020. But the rapid decrease at the start of the pandemic has proven to some county officials that jail overcrowding isn’t an insurmountable problem. 

“We’re learning what our capability is now in terms of managing the population of our jail,” Jim Neal, former Hamilton County Sheriff, told the CityBeat Cincinnati newspaper last April. “It took a virus to make that happen.”

The majority of Oklahoma criminal defendants, except those charged with certain violent or drug-related felonies, are eligible for pretrial release. 

Most district courts follow a preset bond schedule, which allows defendants charged with certain crimes to immediately bond out without first appearing before a judge. If the defendant doesn’t immediately bond out, a judge will set their bond during an initial arraignment typically scheduled within 48 hours of the arrest. The judge may consider the defendant’s pending charges, criminal history and potential danger to the public when setting bail. 

The defendant can pay the full bond amount to the court and receive the money back once the case is resolved, or more commonly, pay a bail bondsman to put forth the bond amount. Most Oklahoma bondsmen charge a 10% fee. For example, if a judge sets bond at $10,000, the defendant would have to pay a bondsman $1,000 to be released. 

Robert Ravitz, Oklahoma County’s Chief Public Defender, said judges are often hesitant to lower bail or grant personal recognizance release to indigent defendants because it would reflect poorly on them if the person fails to appear in court or commits a new crime while out of custody. He estimated that up to 700 defendants housed at the jail aren’t likely to commit violent crimes and could legally bond out if cash bail wasn’t an obstacle. 

“The vast majority of people who are in jail waiting for their day in court are not likely to commit a violent crime,” Ravitz said. “But what are you going to do if you’re a judge, and you have the possibility that they might commit a crime again? It could be 1 in a 1,000, but it’s going to be all over the front page of the paper when it happens.”

Oklahoma district judges are elected to four-year terms by voters in their district or county. If a seat becomes vacant, the governor may appoint a judge to serve out the rest of the term. 

One possible solution, Ravitz said, would be to appoint an unelected judge who oversees bond and bail reduction hearings. 

Nicole McAfee, director of policy and advocacy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, said appointing an unelected bond judge could be a good long-term solution, but judges need to work quickly now to get more people out of the jail. 

“I would hope that for the sort of urgent action that is required of a situation like this, that our judges would be bold in providing folks the constitutional access to pay assessments and release that they deserve,” she said. 

In 2019, state lawmakers showed bipartisan support for Senate Bill 252, a measure that would have instructed judges to not set bail at an amount “higher than what is reasonably necessary to ensure a person’s return to court.” It also stated that courts should consider a person’s ability to pay when setting bail and would have prohibited holding a defendant for more than 48 hours without a bond hearing. 

The bill passed 30-12 through the Senate but narrowly failed in the House. In the weeks leading up to the House vote, the Oklahoma Bondsman Association criticized the measure as a “catch and release” bill that would drive up failure-to-appear rates. 

Justice reform advocates argue that defendants often miss court dates because they don’t have access to adequate transportation or child care, or simply because they forgot their court date, not because they’re trying to escape justice. 

One solution, adopted in places like Palm Beach County, Florida and New York City, centers around creating a text notification system that reminds defendants about their upcoming court date. 

University of Chicago researchers found that criminal defendants in New York City were 21% more likely to appear in court if they received a text message. In Palm Beach County, the number of failure-to-appear arrest warrants dropped by more than half a year after the text notification system was implemented. 

“Across the country, we’ve seen some really simple and affordable programming that makes a big difference in appearance rates, text messages being a lot of that,” McAfee said. 

In 2019, State Rep. Marcus McEntire, R-Duncan, introduced House Bill 1020, which would have required courts to implement a text notification system and post upcoming court dates on a publicly accessible website. The bill never received a hearing.

Lower population or not, the Jail Trust is on the clock to increase staffing levels and improve conditions inside the facility. 

The state health department has given jail operators until the end of May to correct violations identified in the February health department inspection, including moldy showers, cold food trays and a lack of prisoner supervision. If changes aren’t made, state health commissioner Lance Frye would be authorized to file a complaint with Attorney General Mike Hunter or District Attorney Prater’s office. 

Turn Key Health, the jail’s medical services provider, told Williams on March 29 that it would terminate its contract with the facility if staffing levels don’t improve within 30 days. Flint Junod, Turn Key’s CEO, said in the letter that higher levels are needed to “complete medication pass and fulfill other obligations under the contract.” 

During last Wednesday’s press conference, Williams said that a recent 10% annual pay increase for detention officers and increased recruitment efforts should help jail officials hire more staff. The jail employs about 330 workers, 70 short of what county funding allows. On March 29, the state Department of Corrections agreed to temporarily send 68 of its employees to help with staffing. 

“We have been able to recruit 35 additional staff since the pay raise went into effect last month,” Williams said. “We think that is promising.” 

Everest said the nine-member trust is better equipped than the Sheriff’s office was to address lingering maintenance issues and conditions should start to improve in the coming months. 

“This is an opportunity for the county to be able to focus on this building and the quality and humanity of how we treat individuals who happen to reside here,” she said. 

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