jail trust
The Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority held an emergency meeting Thursday, April 1, 2021, to discuss developments at the troubled Oklahoma County Jail. (Matt Patterson)

The Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority, otherwise known as the jail trust, approved an agreement today with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections that would bring in officers from that agency to supplement jail staff because the trust says it currently lacks the staff to safely operate the jail.

At times, Thursday’s chaotic and hybrid remote-in person meeting was fraught with technical problems ranging from unmuted microphones, feedback, bad audio and speakers confused about if it was their time to speak.

The trust also discussed the employment of Oklahoma County Jail CEO Greg Williams during a lengthy executive session. No action on Williams’ employment was taken, and Williams returned when the trust wrapped up its executive session and continued to participate in the meeting answering questions from trustees.

The meeting comes on the heels of yet more controversy for the jail trust, which has been bathed in squabble since the body took over the jail’s day-to-day operations from the Oklahoma County Sheriff Office in July.

Oklahoma City police shot and killed Curtis Williams, 34, Saturday night on the 10th floor of the jail after police said he held a weapon to a guard’s neck in a hostage situation. He had been in the jail for about two years awaiting trial on a rape charge.

The shooting has outraged criminal justice activists who spoke at Thursday’s special meeting. Adriana Laws told the trust she wasn’t surprised to hear from Greg Williams that he has received numerous phone calls from people upset about the current state of the jail.

“It’s funny to me that Greg has said people have been in calling in angrily. Can you blame them?” Laws said. “A guard’s life was at risk. A man lost his life. There were situations where Tommie Johnson’s officers proceeded to point guns at demonstrators because they were angry people had the nerve to stand up for the rights of people inside the tower. That in itself is completely unacceptable. They have every right to be demanding answers. This man literally died asking for better living conditions.”

Nine inmates have died in the jail since the trust took over in July 2020, including five this year. There have also been two successful escape attempts in that time. In November, two inmates used bed sheets to fashion a rope that they used to escape from a 12th-floor window.

DOC officers will supplement staff

Department of Corrections officers who typically work in state prisons will be brought in to help supplement jail staff, according to an agreement between the trust and the DOC.

Williams said 68 DOC officers would begin working at the jail Friday. The agreement runs retroactively from March 29 to June 30. In it, the trust acknowledges staffing problems at the jail. Williams said the jail currently has about 330 employees, while the inmate population is more than 1,000.

“Oklahoma County has a critical staffing need due to a crisis incident involving OCDC staff affecting availability of detention center employees and supervisors with training to manage secured environments and ODOC has employees with such specialized training,” the agreement states.

Several trust members expressed concern about the contract that was approved 7-2 Thursday with two trust members abstaining. The motion to bring in the officers was initiated by chairwoman Tricia Everest, who was recently named Oklahoma’s secretary of public safety by Gov. Kevin Stitt.

Sheriff Tommie Johnson said he was concerned about how much the agreement would cost, and he also questioned whether those employees would be paid more than regular jail staff.

“I feel like we’re just giving someone a blank check to write whatever they want,” Johnson said.

Trustee Sue Ann Arnall echoed those concerns.

“We need parameters on the cost,” she said.

Jail trust attorney John Michael Williams said the financial risk would largely be assumed by DOC. Williams said it was similar to a contract between the trust and the DOC executed last year.

Trustee Francie Ekwerekwu, who initially raised questions about the cost, voted to abstain, citing the uncertainty of the contract’s details. But she added that the jail needs help.

“I just want to express gratefulness to DOC for helping us,” Ekwerekwu said. “They’ve been vital in an emergency situation, and I appreciate them, and if this contract is the way you describe it, we should be even more grateful if these are indeed free services.”

Report dings jail on numerous items

The facility also received poor marks in its most recent inspection report fro the Oklahoma State Department of Health. The 38-page report listed numerous problems including phones that didn’t work, moldy showers on almost every floor of the 13-story facility, overcrowded cells, bed bugs, roaches and inadequate and inconsistent staffing.

“Pursuant to Title 74 O.S. Section 194, [if] the deficiencies listed in the report have not been corrected, within sixty (60) days after delivery of the report, the commissioner of health shall be authorized to file a complaint with the attorney general or the district attorney,” State Department of Health detention program manager Barry Edwards wrote in a March 30 letter to jail administrator Greg Williams.

Prater strongly criticizes jail trust

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater has been strongly critical of the jail trust and its turbulent first year of existence. In a recent interview with The Oklahoman, Prater said the trust has been incompetent.

“It’s the incompetent administration of that jail. It’s the incompetence of the jail trust,” Prater said. “The jail trust and its administration of the Oklahoma County jail is an abject failure that has cost the lives of inmates, made the environment incredibly dangerous for law enforcement and other jail staff members.”

He added that, instead of making things better at the jail, the trust has made the situation worse.

“It’s never been so understaffed. It’s never been so corrupt and it’s never been so dangerous,” he said.

Vendor threatens trust

On Monday, Turn Key Health, which provides medical services at the the jail, sent Williams a letter stating it would terminate its contract with the jail if staffing levels were not improved.

“Please accept this as formal notice of defect pursuant to Section 3.3.A.1 (of our contract),” wrote Flint Junod, CEO of Turn Key Health. “Please be advised that pursuant to the same subsection of the contract, we are giving the jail until April 29, 2021, to increase its staffing levels to ensure we are able to have detention staff available to complete medication pass and fulfill our other obligations under the contract, and to ensure adequate detention staff is available to maintain the safety and security of our employees at the Oklahoma County Detention Center.”

The letter says that if staffing levels are not improved prior to April 29, the company “will have no choice but to terminate our contract for cause effective May 31.”

Everest appointed to state post

Gov. Kevin Stitt appointed jail trust chairwoman Tricia Everest Secretary of Public Safety March 22.

“Tricia is a proven leader who has done a tremendous job over the last few years building successful relationships with law enforcement and delivering meaningful criminal justice reform for Oklahoma,” Stitt said in a statement. “I am confident Tricia’s wealth of experience and heartfelt passion for serving the state will translate into success in this role.”