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Oklahoma Jail Withholds Death Records, Fails to Report Five Since 2018

by Matt Clarke

Since 2018, at least seven vulnerable detainees have died at the 366-­bed Pottawatomie County Public Safety Center, 30 miles east of Oklahoma City. Yet despite state law requiring deaths be reported within five days to the Oklahoma Health Department’s jail division, the jail failed to report five of the deaths. Those reports would have triggered a jail safety inspection, which may hint at a reason jail Director Rochelle Thompson had for failing to report them. Adding to the appearance of a cover-­up, Thompson and officials with the trust that took over jail operations in 2002 have also stonewalled requests from surviving family members for public records concerning the deaths.

Four deaths were ruled homicides by the county’s medical examiner (ME), but not the death of Michael Morton, 67, who suffered from mental illness and was found on his cell floor without a pulse and not breathing in 2018. The ME ruled that his seizure disorder contributed to his death, which is perhaps why it was one of the two the jail reported.

Stacy Garrett, 38, also died at the jail in 2018. The ME ruled that substance abuse contributed to the death but the exact cause was undetermined. It was also unreported by the jail.

In 2019, Ronald Given, 42, died in a hospital a week after struggling with guards during a mental health crisis. The ME ruled his death a homicide, yet the jail did not report it. With the aid of Oklahoma City attorneys Ronald “Skip” Kelly and Kevin R. Kemper, his family filed a suit that is still pending in federal court for the Western District of Oklahoma. See: Kopady v. Pottawatomie Cty. Pub. Safety Ctr. Trust, USDC (W.D. Okla.), Case No. 5:20-­cv-­01280. They also tried for years to get public records that the jail refused to provide. It took a lawsuit by Frontier Media Group and a state appellate court order to finally get them. See: Frontier Media Grp., Inc. v. Pottawatomie Cty. Pub. Safety Ctr. Trust, Okla. Civ. Appeals (Div. II), Case No. 119.952 (Dec. 2022).

Cindy Salazar, 39, was being held at the jail for pickup by U.S. Marshals when she had seizures, was transported to a hospital, and died in 2021. Hers was the other death the jail reported.

Four More Deaths

Kelly Wright, 50, died the day she was booked into the jail in 2021. She was attending a conference of the Oklahoma Society of Accountants, as the group’s education chair, at the Grand Casino Hotel and Resort in Shawnee when she suffered a mental health crisis in the hotel lobby. When her wife, Shelly Cailler, found her at the St. Anthony Hospital in Shawnee, Wright was on life support, with five broken ribs and covered in unfamiliar bruises. Doctors told Cailler that Wright was brain dead after suffering a series of cardiac arrests in the ambulance that brought her from the jail to the hospital.

Wright had a history of alcohol abuse, hypertension, and depression. She had also been treated for delirium in 2020, which Cailler said was pandemic related. However, she had been stable for nearly a year, and none of this history explains her injuries. Body-­cam video of her arrest showed Wright in crisis and combative, but police exercised restraint and did nothing that would have caused more than very minor injuries. Cailler tried to get any video, medical records, or reports pertaining to the injuries from the jail, without success. With the help of attorney Dan Smolen, she filed a lawsuit in federal court, alleging that jail staff ignored Wright’s mental health crisis and failed to evaluate or treat her. A magistrate recommended dismissal of Defendant’s motion to dismiss that suit on March 5, 2024, and the case remains pending. See:Callier v. Pottawatomie Cty. Pub. Safety Ctr. Trust, USDC (W.D. Okla.), Case No. 5:23-­cv-­00594.

In 2022, Carrie Stewart, 48, died of infections caused by IV drug usage.

Jerry Gage, 78, also died in 2022, but of a quite different cause—his cellmate beat him to death. Jailers did not even notice the fatally injured prisoner until his assailant pointed it out. After Gage died in the hospital, the cellmate was deemed incompetent to stand trial for murder. Attorney Roland Skip Kelly is representing the Gage family in a lawsuit against jail officials, who have resisted producing public records in this case, too. See: Gage v. Pottawatomie Cty. Pub. Safety Ctr. Trust, USDC (W.D. Okla.), Case No. 5:23-­cv-­00889.

Death Reporting Loophole

State Representative Dell Kerbs (R-­Shawnee) noted the argument put forward by some—he didn’t say who—that jailers don’t need to report a death that occurs offsite, such as in a hospital. He said the law needs clarification.

Regardless of the law’s clarity, the jail clearly uses this supposed loophole to avoid reporting prisoner deaths, especially those in which jailers might be complicit. As Gage lay unconscious and dying in the hospital, jail officials asked a county judge to release him. The judge did so on the condition that Gage agree to appear at his next court date. But as Kelly pointed out, the release should have been denied because Gage was unconscious and could not agree to anything. Yet the same thing happened with Stewart. Attorneys Smolen and Kelly say that Oklahoma jails often use such medical release bonds to deflect responsibility and medical costs for the sickest and most vulnerable prisoners.

Dr. LaTrina Frazier, head of the state health department’s quality assurance and regulatory division, said the department was unaware of the unreported deaths. Pottawatomie County prosecutor Adam Painter, who was elected in November 2022, after the unreported deaths, agreed that they “raise serious concerns” and were being investigated.

It is a pity that the refusal to disclose public information is not also investigated. Cailler, for instance, knows from the ME report that her wife’s body registered less than half the legal limit of alcohol and no drugs for which she did not have a prescription. That puts the lie to claims that Wright was suffering drug-­induced agitation when booked into the jail. But it does not tell Cailler anything about what actually happened to Wright. She is left to imagine how her wife’s injuries came about and fight in court for disclosure of the information.

“When you take the least of us and you treat them with the kind of disrespect to the point that it leads to their demise, that’s just inhumane,” said Kelly. “I have never experienced the kind of ruthless disrespect for families I’ve seen from this jail. If there was ever a jail that needs to be under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, it’s that one.”  


Additional source: Oklahoma Watch

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Related legal cases

Callier v. Pottawatomie Cty. Pub. Safety Ctr. Trust

Gage v. Pottawatomie Cty. Pub. Safety Ctr. Trust

Frontier Media Grp., Inc. v. Pottawatomie Cty. Pub. Safety Ctr. Trust

Kopady v. Pottawatomie Cty. Pub. Safety Ctr. Trust