Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Overcrowded and Understaffed, Oklahoma County Jail Remains “Deplorable”

by David M. Reutter

A headline in the August 1965 edition of The Daily Oklahoman said that then-Sheriff Bob Turner of Oklahoma County “denies his jail’s ‘deplorable.’” A new jail was later built, but almost six decades later, a surprise inspection of the lockup in downtown Oklahoma City by the state health department on July 26, 2023, cited conditions that couldn’t be described otherwise, including roaches, mice and bedbugs—some infesting detainees themselves.

“Some things never change,” it is said. The county jail’s current ranking as Oklahoma’s most deadly means some details in the conversation about its conditions may have changed, but the overall picture remains the same. In 1965, the jail was housed in the top three floors of the county courthouse. Designed to hold 100 people, its detainee population at that time was over 350, raising concerns about sanitation and overcrowding.

But it took over two decades before Oklahoma County voters approved a temporary one-cent sales tax in 1987 to fund construction of the $43 million, 13-story Oklahoma County Detention Center (OCDC). The choice of a tower design on the wide-open plains not only looked odd, it lacked foresight, said one expert.

“Any high-rise building adds additional challenges to the design and construction,” said Engineer John Semtner, who works for FSB, an architectural firm hired to analyze OCDC and present options that include an annex or new jail. He pointed to maintenance requirements, noting that “[o]ne of the biggest inherent problems with it is you have three elevators, and any time one of them breaks down, things sort of start to break down with operations.”

Then there is still a problem with overcrowding. “The other thing that nobody anticipated back then,” Semtner said, “was 2,400 and sometimes 2,800 in a facility built for 1,200, which added a lot of extra wear and tear, and previous sheriffs’ maintenance budgets didn’t keep up.”

Built during the “tough-on-crime” era getting underway in the 1980s, OCDC came with a promise from then District Attorney Bob Macy: “If you lock them up, we’ll build you a jail.” Then-Sheriff J.D. Sharp called the new jail a pivotal moment for the County. “I think for the first time in 10 years we’re going to control the criminal instead of him controlling us,” Sharp said.

But the sparkle of the new jail tarnished quickly. Just two months after it opened in November 1991, a detainee knocked out some glass bricks and used knotted bedsheets to escape from the fourth floor. Six days later, another detainee escaped in a similar fashion. In March 1992, the first suicide occurred at OCDC; many have followed, including nine in 2022. The County sued contractor Manhattan Construction in 1993 due to problems with the windows that enabled the first two escapes. In 1996, more than $20,000 was spent to fix rubber flaps on toilets that were improperly installed. By 2000, the FBI was investigating conditions at OCDC, which was packing more than 2,200 detainees into a space designed for 1,200.

Since at least 2003, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has found conditions within OCDC violated the constitutional rights of those confined there. In 2008, after DOJ issued a scathing report on jail conditions, Oklahoma County entered into a memorandum of understanding agreeing to adequately fund and staff OCDC by 2014 or face Court action.

Unsurprisingly, that deadline came and went without correcting the failure to achieve adequate staffing. Yet DOJ has not initiated legal proceedings. The problem has continued to worsen. According to inspection records from the state Department of Health (DOH), there were 431 staff members during a 2015 inspection. In 2020, there were only 222. That number increased to about 336 full-time and six

part-time employees in 2023.

The current budget provides for 400 employees, fewer than the 490 employees budgeted in 2008. Some external audits suggest that OCDC needs as many as 600 or 700 guards for full staffing. Turnover has been a continuing problem. DOH found that on October 7, 2022, there were only seven guards on rover duty to supervise 1,586 detainees, a ratio of less than one guard for every 226 detainees. By comparison, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated in 2006 that U.S. jails averaged one guard for every 3.3 detainees—meaning OCDC needed almost 480 more guards to keep up.

Dismal conditions within OCDC leave a lasting image in the minds of some. “I don’t see the maintenance as the only problem with a tower,” said Semtner. “The dreariness of it, the lack of recreation space and sunlight—high rises also need significantly more staff than a low rise. It takes time to move inmates around, and that exacerbates existing staffing challenges.”

Staff Culture Breeds Inhumane Treatment

Whether it is the general atmosphere within OCDC that stresses out guards or they are inadequately trained can only be adjudged by a jury. The facts, however, indicate that there is widespread disdain for the human beings under supervision of the public servants who have a duty to provide their care, custody and control at the jail.

“I was roving a floor one night and another officer told an inmate to wipe their butt with their hand, and I was like, ‘No, that’s a basic necessity, we have to give them toilet paper,’” said an OCDC guard who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation. “She even told me, ‘These are inmates, not people, don’t treat them like they’re people, treat them like they’re inmates,’” he said about yet another guard.

Another story related to a detainee needing medical care from employees of the jail’s private medical contractor, Turn Key Health Clinics. “I’ve had to yell at one of the nurses to go back and give inmates their meds and they started yelling at me. I got written up for it,” one guard said. “Probably about 80% of the people working in that jail don’t have the right attitude. They treat them like garbage, just the bottom dirt barrel of the chain.”

Another guard said he called his supervisor to say, “Lieutenant, this inmate has shoved something in his privates again and he’s going to need to be taken to the hospital, can you come check on him?” To which the supervisor replied, “Eh, he does this all the time, don’t matter if he’s bleeding, don’t matter if he’s pissing, that’s what he gets.”

Between October 2022 and August 2023, at least six OCDC guards were charged in state court with assault and mistreatment of detainees or prisoners. “Many of the charges stem from uses of force against prisoners who left their cells at unauthorized times to shower or use the restroom amid jail staff shortages,” reported The Frontier.

Former guard Steven Blake Brewer was charged with two misdemeanor counts of assault against prisoners in separate incidents. The 6-foot-2-inch, 280-pound Brewer was accused of punching an unnamed female prisoner in the face in August 2022. That assault occurred after Brewer was called to assist when the woman refused to return to her cell after going to take a shower. After punching the woman, Brewer sprayed her face and torso with pepper spray as she curled in a fetal position on the shower floor. In another incident, Brewer allegedly punched a male detainee with a closed fist while holding handcuffs as the detainee was using the toilet and refused to return to his cell.

The Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office operated the jail until 2020, when the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority (Jail Trust) was created to take over operations. Another guard who spoke anonymously said many guards quit after the trust took a tougher stance on use-of-force incidents. The guard was fired after an altercation with a detainee who refused to return to his cell from a shower. The former guard said he worked in fear of his life after another detainee attacked him while manning an OCDC unit alone.

That understaffing negatively impacts all areas of OCDC operations. “They have a lot more liberty to do what they want because so many officers have either left and went to another job or resigned or have just been fired,” the former guard said.

“For the staff that we have today, we have zero tolerance of any kind of hands-on-force on the detainees,” said Tricia Everest, chairwoman of the Jail Trust.

But not all torture is physical. As PLN reported, former OCDC guards Christian Miles and Gregory Butler, both 21, along with their former supervisor, Christopher Hendershott, 50, faced misdemeanor criminal charges for allegedly handcuffing detainees to a wall—sometimes in the middle of the night—and forcing them to listen repeatedly to the children’s song “Baby Shark.” [See: PLN, Mar. 2021, p.62.]

According to a court affidavit, detainee John Basco was handcuffed standing to a metal bar at 2 a.m. and forced to listen to the song on repeat for two hours. Basco said he was being punished for rigging the faulty lock on his cell door to move about freely in his pod to shower and use a toilet with more privacy than the one in his cell. Outside of hourly checks and meal delivery, detainees are mostly left in their pods, he said.

“Medieval” Conditions

Jess Eddy, who has spent time inside OCDC while working for an attorney’s office and as a result of arrests related to his activism, painted an ugly picture of conditions within the jail.

“It strikes you as what a medieval dungeon would be like,” he said. “The stench, there is a profound stench that permeates the place. There is peeling paint and discolored walls that are graffitied over that gives it a dystopian feel. I’ve never been in a cell there that doesn’t have urine or fecal matter.”

When DOJ inspected OCDC in April 2007, it found overcrowding contributed to causing detainees’ harm. “Throughout the facility, we found detainees sleeping on the floor and three or four detainees locked in two-man cells,” stated the 2008 DOJ report outlining unconstitutional conditions. “The detainees spend nearly 24 hours per day in these cramped conditions.”

Shortly after that, OCDC’s population hit 2,412 in June 2009, but it had dropped to 1,595 by March 31, 2021. The county Criminal Justice Advisory Council (CJAC), which is tasked with recommending solutions to reduce OCDC’s population, attributed the nearly one-third decrease in jail population to changes in state law and expansion of local diversion programs. Despite the decreased population, though, conditions remain crowded because of cells that cannot be occupied due to structural or security issues.

Detainee David Hrdlicka was forced to sleep on a floor for six weeks due to overcrowding. “He had to use a sheet and lay on the floor by the toilet,” said his mother, Letha Hrdlicka. “The toilets back up and there’s sewer water by the floor.”

Another surprise DOH inspection on February 4, 2021, found up to three detainees being forced into a 49-square-foot cell designed to confine only one person. At the time, the jail held 1,712 detainees. Inspectors reported a lack of sufficient cell lighting, a bed bug infestation, cockroaches, overcrowded cells, insufficient staffing and other health violations.

Days before that report was issued at the end of the following month, detainees took a guard hostage on the 10th floor to protest poor food quality, a lack of showers and plumbing issues. The March 27, 2021, incident ended when Oklahoma City Police Officer Lt. Coy Gilbert and Officer Kevin Kuhlman shot and killed 34-year-old detainee Curtis Williams as he was holding a makeshift knife to the neck of guard Daniel Misquez. The guard, who’d been taken hostage as he roved the unit alone, was treated for non-life-threatening injuries.

During following inspections on October 11 and 12, 2022, OCDC was cited with 45 violations. Of those, 24 were repeat violations from April 2022 inspections, including “[v]isible signs of uncleanliness, build-up of dirt, debris, and black residue,” DOH reported. Inspectors saw a cockroach climbing on a second-floor shower curtain, and live bed bugs were observed on a mattress assigned to a 10th floor detainee. On the 13th floor they discovered a detainee who had been held over a year sleeping on the floor without a mattress.

DOH took administrative action against the Jail Trust in June 2023 after repeatedly finding unsanitary conditions and understaffing at OCDC. A $75,000 fine was sought. But a settlement was reached on February 14, 2023, and a fine was avoided. The settlement required OCDC to implement changes, costing the Jail Trust $175,000 to fix health and safety violations.

“When we take somebody’s personal freedoms away and their ability to take care of themselves, we have an obligation to make sure and take care of them,” said DOH Commissioner Keith Reed. “These health and safety issues have to be addressed now; they can’t wait three to five years for a new jail.”

Lethal Uncorrected Mismanagement

Since 2009, there have been at least 84 deaths at OCDC, The Frontier reported in August 2023. Data compiled by Reuters News found that over the last decade, OCDC had an average annual death rate of 3.3 per 1,000 detainees, more than double the national average of 1.46 deaths per 1,000 detainees. But that rate represents a decrease from 2016 to 2019, when there were 40 deaths for a mortality rate of 4.77 deaths per 1,000 detainees.

By the time of its October 2020 report, Reuters News found Oklahoma jails as a group are the nation’s second most deadly, with an average mortality rate of 2.16 deaths per 1,000 detainees. West Virginia had the highest mortality rate. The frequency of deaths at OCDC has increased drastically since 2019 and the pandemic-lockdown 2020, which saw six and four detainee deaths, respectively. Another 16 died at OCDC in 2021 and 2022, with an additional seven detainee deaths at the jail as of September 21, 2023.

Nine of the deaths since 2020 were suicides. Another eight detainees died from drug toxicity; five due to COVID-19; 13 deaths were attributed to other illnesses; and there were two homicides. No cause had yet been determined for most of the 2023 deaths. At least three detainees died from “fentanyl intoxication.” Two others had methamphetamine in their blood stream. But all five were jailed beyond the timeframe for those drugs to still be in their system if taken before booking, raising the question how they obtained the drugs. According to Dr. Melinda Cail, fentanyl administered via IV can clear one’s system in as little as an hour, and even administration via patch can remain perhaps 96 hours.

Brad Lane, 40, was murdered while jailed in January 2023. He entered OCDC with a walking boot after he broke his leg in a motorcycle accident and was arrested for possession of a stolen vehicle and drugs, as well as reckless driving. Lane was placed into a cell with Shaquile Brown, who was jailed on charges of aggravated assault and attempted first degree robbery. Brown, 29, picked up an additional charge for first degree murder after he allegedly used a metal brace from Lane’s walking boot to beat his cellmate to death. Lane’s screams began after evening meal trays were served. But the guard assigned to the floor was busy escorting another prisoner to medical and missed one of her rounds, court records said.

“He kept saying ‘he’s killing me, help me, he’s killing me,” recalled Christopher Autry, who was held in a nearby cell on the 13th floor. “It was traumatic for us. I kept telling him to fight back.”

Lawsuits Filed

Representative Austin Bond filed suit on behalf of Lane’s estate against the jail in January 2023, with the aid of attorneys from Smolen and Royton PLLC in Tulsa. They are also representing Laura Neal, the administrator of the estate of Parker James Stephens, 22, who committed suicide while held at the jail on February 3, 2021, as well as Angela Leddy, who is representing the estate of her mother, Christa Sullivan, a 65-year-old who died in a suicide watch cell on April 13, 2021. See: Bond v. Okla. Cty. Crim. J. Auth., USDC (W. D. Okla.), Case No. 5:23-cv-00005; Leddy v. Okla. Cty. Crim. J. Auth., USDC (W. D. Okla.), Case No. 5:23-cv-00295; and Neal v. Okla. Cty. Crim. J. Auth., USDC (W. D. Okla.), Case No. 5:23-cv-00114.

Deaths in jails and prisons often lead to lawsuits, which in turn increase taxpayer costs for their operation. In 2022, Oklahoma County spent $1.1 million to settle a lawsuit with the estate of Charlton Chrisman; as PLN reported, he died in 2017 after guards shot him from close range with pepper balls. [See: PLN, May 2023, p.47.]

“In an excessive use of force case dating back more than five years at the Oklahoma County jail, county commissioners agreed to pay $3 million to a former inmate who claimed guards left him paralyzed,” The Oklahoman reported on May 23, 2023. “The settlement with Torrance Gene Jackson, 48, was entered earlier this month in Oklahoma City federal court.” The assault occurred over a dispute concerning Jackson’s shoes during the booking process.

Then there is the problem of treating mental illness that drives so much criminal behavior. A planned class-action lawsuit accuses the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse and the state Forensic Center of denying timely and appropriate treatment to detainees deemed incompetent to stand trial, violating their 14th Amendment rights to due process as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. ch. 126 § 12101 et seq.

“I think the most pressing concern is there doesn’t seem to be enough resources devoted to providing the restoration services to these folks,” said Paul DeMuro, lead counsel for the plaintiffs. “And as a result, they’re being punished effectively simply because they’re mentally ill. And one must remember that these are people that are legally presumed innocent. And in many of these cases, the crimes are low-level crimes.” Plaintiffs say they are not planning to seek monetary damages.

Of several named, one 22-year-old identified as A.M. is jailed at OCDC but unable to stand trial because of “a history of delusional and paranoid thinking and a prior diagnosis of psychotic disorder,” reported Oklahoma Watch. “[H]e was charged with second-degree burglary and grand larceny in July [2023] for the theft of a guitar and damaging plumbing fixtures and a window while attempting to enter a neighboring apartment unit ‘to pray.’ His wait for restorative services stands at 86 days.”

District Attorney Takes a Stab

Lawsuits take years to resolve. Meanwhile, conditions within OCDC remain desperate. “Conditions in there are horrible, you can sit there and scrape the bedbugs off the wall,” said a recently released detainee at a public gathering on January 21, 2023, held to commemorate the 16 people who died at the jail the prior year. He described his “bunkie,” who was “in there coughing up blood, wheezing, you know can barely breathe, the phones do not work in there for the medical so it went about two hours before they finally heard us banging and screaming on the wall that he needs help. They don’t listen to anything you saying there, man.”

Understaffing leaves detainees confined to their cells and inhibits rehabilitation. Oklahoma City Public Schools, which contracts to provide basic education for OCDC detainees under 18, says staff shortages and broken elevators prevent it from guaranteeing the required four hours of daily education.

In September 2021, the county’s then-District Attorney, David Prater, received permission to impanel a grand jury to investigate the “lethal uncorrected mismanagement” of OCDC since the Jail Trust took over. In his petition, Prater noted that DOH had reported “unhealthy and even lethal uncorrected mismanagement” of the jail. Other allegations involved the lack of physical security for both detainees and staff, as well as preventable loss of life within since the Jail Trust assumed management of OCDC. Prater later recused himself from the investigation to avoid the appearance of impropriety due to his representation of trust members.

“To say I’m concerned or to say it’s concerning—that just sounds like I’m minimizing it,” Prater said. “That’s not even a strong enough description of how I feel. I’m sick and tired of the Jail Trust not ensuring people are well cared for at the jail. I’m sick and tired of it is the best way I can put it.” Pushing back against the idea that a new jail will solve the county’s problem, Prater said he believes “it’s a culture issue and not just the facility. They are chronically understaffed, and I believe the Trust has been dishonest about their staffing levels. I think that’s led to the increased number of inmates who are dying.”

The Grand Jury issued its report in March 2023. “According to testimony and the investigation, three (3) major issues have led to deaths in the jail—inadequate controlled dangerous substance interdiction, inadequate health screening during the intake process, and the failure of detention officers to conduct proper site checks on inmates,” the report said. Though noting that “[i]llness is the predominant cause of death in the jail,” grand jurors also found that OCDC has a staffing issue, observing an inability of the administration to properly hire experienced employees. In addition, the grand jury encouraged jail administrators to address health and safety issues reflected in reports from DOH inspections—including reported infestations of bed bugs, cockroaches and mice.

Talking Change

In the midst of the outcry over deaths at OCDC, FSB was hired to study the current jail and provide options to bring the lockup’s physical conditions up to constitutional standards. The options are to renovate the current jail, to build an annex to service that jail, or to build a entirely new facility.

One of the problems with the current jail is that the infirmary is on the 13th floor, so “[i]f someone today has a cardiac arrest, getting [emergency medical responders] up there is a huge issue,” said Semtner.

Another problem is that plumbing for the kitchen is on the first floor, so moving it would be costly. Semtner said adding an annex for intake services has more appeal, allowing staff greater flexibility in dealing with the different needs and situations involving detoxing or mentally ill detainees.

“We talk about diversion programs,” Semtner said. “When you’re brought into booking, you go through a door for evaluation. Maybe you end up in substance abuse treatment that’s through Door A. Or low-level offenders through another door. Right now, streamlining that process is not really achievable in the current facility.”

But renovating the current jail is not popular and may prove cost prohibitive. “If we renovate the current jail, it would have to be a substantial shift in its infrastructure to rehabilitate it to the point where better services could be provided,” said CJAC Executive Director Timothy Tardibono. “My guess is the study will show that it’s not cost effective to renovate.”

State Rep. Jason Lowe (D-Oklahoma City), a defense attorney and former public defender, said conditions at OCDC make it not salvageable, but more importantly have negative legal implications for detainees—a situation he said “has just gotten worse and worse” as the threat of incarceration in deplorable conditions is used to pressure defendants into plea deals. “I also see the District Attorney’s Office leveraging clients that are incarcerated as far as making sure they plead guilty because they want to get out of there,” he said. “They’re going to take the first deal.”

Officials seem set on building a new jail. Voters were asked to approve bonds to build one, and on June 28, 2022, they passed a $260 million package. County Commissioners then approved a measure on February 6, 2023, authorizing sale of the first $45 million in bonds to purchase a site for a new jail.

But how concerned are those officials about things other than money? After all, they found the COVID-19 pandemic not a horrible public health crisis but rather a financial windfall; the county devoted the $10.3 million grant it received from the federal CARES Act for pandemic-related assistance on OCDC. That money was used to upgrade the heating and air conditioning unit, water management system, sewer grinders, generators, booster pumps and steam piping installation. Oklahoma County also approved using $40 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to build a new psychiatric facility in a new jail. So it was no wonder that former OCDC administrator Greg Williams was caught on voicemail saying “COVID is our friend,” as PLN reported. [See: PLN, May 31, 2022, online.]

Some advocates and citizens are still bitter at the outcome with the last jail construction project. “The taxpayers were defrauded and bamboozled when the current County Jail was built,” declared Sara Bana, a criminal justice reform advocate who speaks regularly at Jail Trust meetings. “The construction problems that were found have never really been fixed.”

In other words, nothing really has changed to improve the deplorable conditions of Oklahoma County’s jail. The message to the public also remains the same: if you lock them up, we will build a jail. With their plans to build yet another lockup, county leaders continue to believe the lie that incarceration will solve problems of crime, addiction and mental illness.  

Sources: Journal Record, KFOR, KOCO, KOKH, KOSU, League of Women Voters, Local Today, NonDoc, Oklahoma Watch, Oklahoman

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login