Today’s regular meeting of the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority, otherwise known as the jail trust, ended in bizarre fashion after technical difficulties forced postponement.
The meeting, conducted virtually on Webex and streamed live via YouTube, was fraught with audio problems from the beginning. Trust members were unable to hear each other and mics were left unmuted, which created cross talk as members of the public, who had planned to speak in person, were prohibited from entering the Oklahoma County Courthouse room where meetings are typically conducted.
During past meetings, some citizens have been allowed to speak in that room as trustees met virtually, but that was not possible Monday for unspecified reasons.
Criminal justice activists Jess Eddy and Adriana Laws strongly criticized the trust for not allowing in-person access and for the technical problems that made conducting the meeting impossible.
At one point, the trust decided to restart the meeting after conducting a vote on receiving the previous meeting’s minutes. A few minutes later, amid continued technical problems, trust attorney John Michael Williams advised Chairwoman Tricia Everest the meeting should be rescheduled at a time when all of the technical problems have been remedied.
Everest sent a statement to media after the conclusion of Monday’s bungled meeting.
“In attempt to improve the decorum of the meetings, the trust and the county implemented procedures that the City of OKC has successfully used, which are in compliance with Oklahoma Meeting Act,” Everest said. “Technical difficulties arose, upon learning of these problems the meeting was cancelled. We apologize for any inconvenience this has caused anyone.”
While Everest attributed the meeting’s online nature to an effort to “improve the decorum,” Monday’s meeting agenda attributed the digital decision to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Everest said the meeting is rescheduled for 3 p.m. Wednesday.
Legislators call for federal intervention
While the jail trust meeting was sputtering Monday afternoon, members of the Legislative Black Caucus were holding a press conference at the State Capitol outlining a letter Rep. Jason Lowe (D-OKC) sent to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.
In the letter (embedded below), Lowe writes:
As a criminal defense attorney, I visit the jail weekly and have experienced firsthand the horrendous conditions. Inmates are subject to mold, bed bugs, and a lack of access to medical care and basic health and hygiene needs. These are civil rights violations that require the attention of the U.S. Attorney General.
Most recently, four detention officers have been charged with assault and battery for incidents involving inmates, and a detention officer was held hostage by inmates in protest of their living conditions, which resulted in an inmate being shot and killed by Oklahoma City police officers. The jail is uninhabitable and in need of reform.
Lowe reiterated that point during his press conference.
“I’m asking for a federal takeover,” he said. “Lives are at stake.”
Rep. Ajay Pittman (D-OKC) said the jail is a place where outcomes are uncertain and the danger is palpable, even olfactorily.
“It is something that hits everyone when they walk in that building, when they hear the clank of the doors behind them, knowing they are going into a place they may not come out of,” she said.
Lowe said the Oklahoma County Jail needs to be replaced, and he said he would support a sales tax for construction and operations.
“We need an entirely new jail,” he said. “Individuals are dying, inmates are dying, detention officers are being held hostage.”
Rep. Mauree Turner (D-OKC) said the problems at the jail didn’t become a problem overnight, and they don’t exist in a vacuum. She added that other county entities — like the Budget Board, and the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s Office — have contributed to its problems.
“It’s also important to note that there are a lot of systems that play a part in this,” she said.
Everest also released a statement responding to Monday’s press conference.
“I applaud the selection of Attorney General Garland and (am) grateful that he is returning to the state on the anniversary of the (OKC) bombing, especially as he played a role in the prosecution,” Everest said. “I invite the caucus and any legislators to come tour (our jail), see the changes and plans, and discuss their concerns and comments. We will always cooperate with any oversight.”
(Editor’s note: Tres Savage contributed to this report. This article was updated at 3:19 p.m. Monday, April 19, to correct reference to the digital platform used for the meeting.)