The general public typically shows little concern about abuse and corruption in jails and prisons, at least until it affects them personally. That was the case when residents in Delaware County, Oklahoma attended a November 2011 meeting of the County Commission and learned they may face an increase in property taxes to satisfy a settlement in a lawsuit that accused county jailers of raping and molesting female prisoners.
“We alleged the sheriff permitted his jail to be a sexual romper room,” said R. Thomas Seymour, an attorney representing 15 former female prisoners who were held at the Delaware County Jail (DCJ). The women were incarcerated between 2005 and 2010 on charges that ranged from drug and alcohol-related offenses to assault and larceny.
Seymour’s law firm, Seymour & Graham, with the Garrett Law Office, had previously represented female prisoners who were sexually abused by Custer County, Oklahoma Sheriff Michael Burgess, who was convicted and sentenced to 79 years in prison. [See: PLN, March 2012, p.24; Sept. 2009, p.36; May 2009, p.1].
At the center of the Delaware County allegations were DCJ Administrator Lonnie Hunter and jail volunteer Bill Sanders, Sr. The lawsuit alleged that Hunter and Sanders had raped and sexually groped female prisoners when driving them to doctor appointments or while the women were in their cells or shower areas. It also claimed other jailers would “bargain” with prisoners to expose their breasts in exchange for food, cigarettes, candy and personal items. Sheriff Jay Blackfox was accused of covering for his employees and ignoring prisoners’ complaints.
“I did not cover up anything,” said Blackfox, who was elected in 2004. “I would not have tolerated any type of sexual misconduct out of my staff.”
Sheriff Blackfox acknowledged that he received a letter of complaint in 2008 from female prisoners, which he said he immediately turned over, along with witness statements, to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. An investigation was opened and a report sent to Delaware County District Attorney Eddie Wyant. Citing insufficient evidence, Wyant declined to prosecute at that time.
Following a deposition by one of the female prisoners, Hunter was placed on paid administrative leave on April 19, 2011 and later fired. Sanders had died in 2008. The County Commission, after hearing evidence and on the advice of counsel, voted in November 2011 to pay $13.5 million to settle the lawsuit, inclusive of the plaintiffs’ attorney fees and costs. The settlement, which was three times the county’s annual budget, was finalized on November 16; the district court entered a final judgment on December 1, 2011. See: England v. Delaware County Sheriff, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Okla.), Case No. 4:09-cv-00407-JHP-TLW.
The plaintiffs will split the settlement, less attorney fees and costs, based on the severity of their claims. “The least amount of money a woman will receive who claimed to be raped is $1.215 million and the most money a woman can receive who claimed to be raped is $3.375 million,” Seymour said. Claims involving sexual abuse other than rape will result in payments ranging from $67,500 to $405,000.
“There is the potential that part or all of the [settlement money] will be raised through property taxes,” remarked County Commissioner Doug Smith. That outraged citizens who attended a Commission meeting on November 8, 2011. “This county is notorious and has a reputation for being corrupt,” complained resident Shirlene Denny.
The county’s insurance policy has a $1 million liability cap. Thus, one option was to raise property taxes up to 18% to cover the cost of the settlement plus interest. That didn’t include the $600,000 in legal expenses the county had already incurred to defend against the lawsuit. Sheriff Blackfox, who was not accused of engaging in sexual misconduct himself, resigned two days after the settlement was announced.
One of the female prisoners named as a plaintiff in the suit was released from custody following the settlement. She had been arrested in May 2009 based on a probation violation, and was released after Wyant received statements that had been written by Hunter and two DCJ guards on June 25, 2009.
“This is the first time the District Attorney’s Office has ever been provided or made aware of these reports,” said Wyant. The woman had been charged with assault and received a five-year sentence for striking a deputy while being placed in a holding cell at DCJ.
The statements indicated how emotional she became when she was put in the cell – the same cell where she said she had been raped by Sanders previously. Wyant noted that had the DA’s Office been aware of those facts, it would not have violated her probation based on the incident in the holding cell nor filed new charges against her.
Commissioner Smith said changes had been implemented at DCJ to address the problems that resulted in the sexual abuse. Those changes included background checks for all employees and volunteers, and requiring female employees to transport female prisoners. Smith also issued a tearful apology to “anyone that has been harmed in the lawsuit.”
In April 2012, Delaware County residents voted to raise the local sales tax to cover the cost of the $13.5 million settlement, rather than raise property taxes. The sales tax was increased by one-half of a cent for seventeen years. “I’m glad that [the tax increase] passed,” said Smith, “but it’s nothing to celebrate about.”
Sources: Tulsa World, Associated Press, www.taxrates.com, www.fox14tv.com
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Related legal case
England v. Delaware County Sheriff
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (N.D. Okla.), Case No. 4:09-cv-00407-JHP-TLW|