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Sheriff, Undersheriff and Deputies Resign Over Safety Issues at Oklahoma Jail

by Matt Clarke 

On March 18, 2019, Terry Sue Barnett, the sheriff of Nowata County, Oklahoma, resigned. So did her undersheriff, all of her deputies and everyone else in the sheriff’s department except for two dispatchers and three jailers. The reasons given for the mass resignations were safety issues at the county jail and a judge pressuring the sheriff and undersheriff to ignore those issues. 

There were already serious problems regarding the safety of prisoners housed at the jail when, on February 28, 2019, four staff members had to be hospitalized due to carbon monoxide poisoning. According to Barnett, the fire department measured carbon monoxide levels at 18, just below the lethal limit of 20. However, the reason for the carbon monoxide buildup was unknown at the time she resigned.

Barnett immediately moved all 18 prisoners at the facility to the Washington County jail in Bartlesville. She said she then came under pressure from Nowata County Associate District Judge Carl Gibson to return the prisoners. According to Barnett, Gibson called her in for a meeting and told her he would increase her salary to $75,000 if she would bring the prisoners back. When she pointed out that her salary was set by statute, Gibson allegedly offered to send her to Greece for two weeks and, when she returned, the jail would be open and have passed all inspections. 

When those attempts at bribery failed, Gibson reportedly threatened to hold Barnett in contempt and jail her if she did not return the prisoners. That threat is what she said led to her decision to resign. 

“I have been informed by Judge Gibson that he is going to mandate me to bring the prisoners back to the county jail today or be held in contempt of court,” Barnett stated. “I cannot do so in good conscience.” 

In her open resignation letter, Barnett said she could not return prisoners to the jail because it did not comply with constitutional standards. The fire alarm system mandated by the fire marshal was not in place; the cause of the carbon monoxide poisoning was undetermined; there was exposed wiring in the prisoners’ shower and throughout the jail that had shocked prisoners; there was black mold throughout the facility; the plumbing was improperly installed, which allowed methane to build up; and there had been intrusion into the jail by snakes, resulting in an incident where one fell on a prisoner’s head when a door was opened. 

Undersheriff Mark Kirschner listed the same problems, and added the female prisoners’ restroom had not had a sink for over a month, forcing prisoners to wash their hands in the shower. He has a worker’s compensation claim pending over mold in his office, and said there is not enough money in the department’s budget to repair everything that needs fixing in the jail, which was built over a century ago. Kirschner noted Judge Gibson had also threatened him with being held in contempt and jailed if he did not return the prisoners from Washington County immediately. He said Gibson felt outsourcing the prisoners was too expensive, but in fact it was less costly than repairing the ancient jail. 

The many problems at the facility were compounded by low funding. The jail’s budget was just $365,886 in 2018, and jailers were reportedly paid less than $8.00 per hour. Previously, Nowata County had lost its contract with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections to house state prisoners, which would have brought in more money.

“It’s frustrating to want to do things correctly and not be given that opportunity,” said Kirschner. “I didn’t come here for the money, because it doesn’t pay enough. I came here to do things morally and ethically, and it’s clear that’s not what they want to do.”

Barnett was elected in November 2018 after the previous sheriff, Kenny Freeman, was arrested for embezzlement. She said she felt Nowata County was “an extremely corrupt county” when Judge Gibson tried to bribe her. 

“The judge is an elected official. I’m also an elected official. I do not believe that we live in a country where I can be ordered to go to work after I’ve already tendered my resignation,” Barnett stated.

The resignations left the county with no law enforcement personnel in the sheriff’s department. Emergency calls were answered, but callers were directed to other agencies such as the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. Meanwhile, Barnett has been replaced by Mickey Bradshaw-Hallett as sheriff for Nowata County. 

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Sources: tulsaworld.com, newson6.com, ktulnews.com, enidnews.com, stateimpact.npr.org