Local voters may go to the polls as early as March to determine the fate of the estimated $290 million cost for a renovated or new county jail.
Oklahoma County is incarcerating a significantly greater portion of the population than it did when the jail was designed and opened in 1991. Problems arose almost immediately. During the first couple of months two inmates escaped. Millions of taxpayer dollars were spent correcting issues. Disputes between the designers, contractors and county arose.
In September, when Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel announced the jail had been accredited by the American Correctional Association for its operations, occupancy was at about 2,350; maximum capacity is 2,890. The jail was designed to hold about 1,200 inmates in single occupancy cells.
The trend indicates a societal choice, which comes with a price, stated a jail advisory committee that began meeting in 2008. The vast majority (80 percent to 90 percent) of the jail population consists of individuals who have not been convicted of a crime.
Remaining issues include the physical plant, inadequate recreational space and the operation of the jail as an indirect supervision facility. A potentially costly federal lawsuit likely will come if they are not corrected, spurring the need for a renovated or new facility at another site.
Oklahoma County Engineer Stacey Trumbo said renovation of the current facility would cost about the same as building a new jail — about $290 million. Commissioners are considering either a bond or a 10-year, half-cent sales tax to raise funds for the project, and they are leaning toward a sales tax, Trumbo said.
In order to have a March election, commissioners would have to act on a resolution by Jan. 1, Trumbo said. He said possibly next week a Georgia consulting firm is expected to recommend building a new facility, the third time such a recommendation has been made.
In a previous report, District 3 Commissioner Ray Vaughn, of Edmond, said if such a measure is approved, completing the design phase would take about a year and construction would take about two years.
In May 2003, 81 percent of county voters rejected a county-wide 2/5 percent permanent sales tax. The tax would have collected $35 million a year to fund operations of the jail and sheriff’s office.
Lack of oversight and lack of accounting transparency were among the theories about why the measure failed, according to the jail advisory committee. Additionally, various local groups vigorously opposed it.
In 2008, the U.S Department of Justice released a scathing report which found the jail failed to provide detainees reasonable protection from harm, constitutionally-required mental health care services, adequate housing, sanitation and environmental protections and protection from serious fire-safety risks.
While the DOJ made it clear it would prefer to work with the county to resolve its outstanding concerns, it maintained the U.S. attorney general’s option to initiate a lawsuit to correct identified deficiencies.
Most issues were operational, not structural. The jail had to resolve 142 elements to achieve accreditation. In September, Whetsel said nearly $2 million had been spent addressing the issues. About 60 additional staff members had been hired since 2007. Enhancements included video upgrades and changes in procedures. The jail’s 13th floor was converted from housing to makeshift medical care and mental health care facilities.
Trumbo said work is also progressing toward a potential new juvenile facility, which would cost about $60 million.
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