jail trust
Oklahoma County commissioners discussed a proposed trust for the county's jail Wednesday, April 24, 2019, at the Oklahoma County Courthouse. (Matt Patterson)

A county commissioner’s effort to establish a trust that would have oversight of the Oklahoma County Jail was met with opposition during a tense meeting today.

The nine-member jail trust proposed by Oklahoma County District 3 Commissioner Kevin Calvey would provide financial and operational oversight for the Oklahoma County Jail, and it might ultimately determine to exclude Sheriff P.D. Taylor from managing the jail.

“The purpose of doing a jail trust is to provide more openness, accountability and transparency over jail operations,” Calvey said. “It’s designed to give more citizen oversight like the successful MAPS oversight board. This jail trust has been recommended by several different community driven citizen advisory committees over the last 24 years.”

Calvey added that he believes a trust would improve treatment of inmates and would reduce lawsuits.

“It is an item that is long overdue,” he said.

Jail has long been a problem

jail trust
The Oklahoma County Jail could be placed under the management of a new trust. (Matt Patterson)

Opened in 1991, the Oklahoma County Jail cost more than $50 million and has been fraught with problems.

Since 2009, the county has paid more than $20 million in settlements and judgments as a result of inmate deaths at the jail. That same year it fell under federal oversight. Elected officials say it needs millions of dollars in repairs, and some have called for building a new jail instead.

Calvey’s proposed jail trust is also recommended by the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council, chaired by Thunder owner Clay Bennett.

The working trust document mirrors Tulsa County’s. Six counties in Oklahoma currently operate jails under trusts, Calvey said.

Under the trust, the jail could continue to be managed by the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office, but it could also be managed by a private jail operations contractor or be self managed by the trust.

Proposal draws harsh criticism from P.D. Taylor

Calvey’s explanation did not impress Oklahoma County Sheriff P.D. Taylor who directed harsh comments at the first-term commissioner during the public comments portion of Wednesday’s three-hour meeting.

“The jail is not my problem Mr. Commissioner, it’s our problem,” he said. “Not fixing things in that jail is not my problem, it’s our problem. We have not funded the jail. We have not made law enforcement in Oklahoma County a priority. It’s a joke. I had a problem keeping people, but since you’ve been elected, Mr. Calvey, they have been leaving in droves because they don’t know if they are going to have a job tomorrow.”

Taylor’s comments drew applause from more than a dozen deputies in the audience. Several spoke before him, citing concerns about how a trust might impact employment status and benefits, including health care.

Deputy Bradley Wynn said he was diagnosed with cancer in December.

“My concern is we might lose our health benefits depending on how this trust unfolds,” he said. “Please consider that in your discussions.”

Sgt. Tara Harden works with inmates who have mental health problems. She said the jail’s suicide prevention unit has worked to reduce suicides over the last few years. She said the effort is the product of hard work.

“I beg you not to thwart that progress,” she said. “Not at this time and not in this way.”

Trust could lead to new jail

Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council executive director Timothy Tardibono said the ultimate goal is to get a new jail.

“I think everyone agrees that where we want to end up is a new jail, better pay for these hardworking individuals, better working conditions and a more humane facility,” he said.

He said a trust could expedite that process.

“The only way to get to a new facility is to convince the public we need additional funding,” Tardibono said. “We know right now if we went to a public vote it would not pass. This trust is a step toward getting the public to join us .”

Calvey hoped to hold a vote on the jail trust at a May 1 meeting, but a motion by Commissioner Carrie Blumert pushed that back to May 8, at the earliest.

“I just don’t understand the rush,” Blumert said.

Calvey responded: “It’s been 24 years.”

His remark drew jeers from those in the audience.

(Correction: This story was updated at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 24, to remove an inaccurate statement made at the meeting about suicides in the Oklahoma County Jail.)