Amid a flood of controversy and bad press surrounding problems at the Oklahoma County Jail, ranging from inmate deaths to bed bugs, the 15 members of the new Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority Action Committee hope their work can help make the troubled jail a more humane place.
The committee was officially created earlier this year by the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority, otherwise known as the jail trust, which is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the jail. The new committee’s purpose is “to study and make recommendations to the authority as to beneficial methods of classification and supervision of incarcerated persons, and strategies to decrease the population of the Oklahoma County Detention Center.”
Members include police chiefs from the metro area, criminal-justice-reform and human-rights activists, a state legislator and a clergy member. The aim is to provide the trust with ideas from community stakeholders outside its membership, committee Chairwoman Francie Ekwerekwu said.
“Specifically, what we’re going to be doing is taking a deeper look at the population of the jail and what it would take to develop strategies and options we might have when it comes to staffing and depopulation of the jail,” said Ekwerekwu, who also sits on the jail trust.
The group’s work comes at a pivotal time. Earlier this month an inmate was shot and killed inside the jail by Oklahoma City police during a hostage situation. In all, six people have died at the jail just this year, most recently on April 13. There has also been continued criticism over food quality, bug infestations and access to medical care at the jail over the past few months.
The jail trust was put in place last year by Oklahoma County commissioners in an effort to turn the troubled facility around, but progress has been slow. Members of the new action committee hope their focused efforts might make a difference.
First meetings underway
The new committee started meeting as the Detention Center Action Committee earlier this year while meetings of the jail trust, which took over operation of the jail last summer, were becoming frequently contentious and chaotic. Local activists have been vocal participants in the meetings, which have sometimes devolved into shouting matches and, once, even a physical fight. The jail trust’s most recent meeting was adjourned with no action taken owing to technological issues.
According to Ekwerekwu, the jail has never been on anyone’s list of Oklahoma County success stories, but public trust in the institution is perhaps at its lowest point in years. That’s something she says the jail trust and the new committee should focus on changing.
“The first thing we need to do is to save lives,” she said. “The second is to show the public we do take their concerns seriously. We want to get those concerns into a working committee room where all of us sit at a table and really thoroughly put some of the best minds together to come up with sound recommendations.”
The jail trust approved the committee’s final list of members on April 5, and the group will now start conducting regular monthly meetings. Included in its most recent agenda were items relating to reducing prisoner population, 75- and 180-day goals for the jail and discussion of how inmates are classified to different security levels once they enter the jail.
The committee will also look at ways to allow for those inside to move around more.
“The idea is to allow for people to come out of their cells more often and have more freedom to move around and to have a more recreational-style setting versus being locked up in their cell 23 hours a day,” Ekwerekwu said. “But we’re not limited to those topics. We will look at a variety of things, including suicide prevention and maintenance of the facility.”
The members of the committee include:
- Sam Wargin
- John Budd
- Natasha Broussard
- Aaron Cosar
- Sara Bana
- Adriana Laws
- Outgoing Midwest Police Chief Brandon Clabes
- Moore Police Chief Todd Gibson
- Sen. George Young (D-OKC)
- Timothy Tardibono
- Ryan Gentzler
- Ryan Haynie
- Nicole McAfee
- Chuck Loughlin
- Pastor Jon Middendorf
Jail trust member Sue Ann Arnall is the committee’s vice chairwoman. Trust member Ben Brown is also part of the group.
Cautious optimism meets skepticism
Committee member Adriana Laws, a 22-year-old criminal justice reform advocate and college student, is part of the small group of local activists that has been showing up to jail trust meetings and relentlessly taking the body to task. On subjects ranging from ICE agents at the jail to the quality of food inmates are served, Laws and the others say the trust is unable to affect real change and accuse some trust members of indifference to the activists’ views.
That might seem to make Laws an unusual choice for a committee created by the body she has criticized, but she sees it as a natural fit.
“I run my own grassroots organization, and really for my entire life it’s been about trying to help people who have been marginalized in communities,” she said. “I want them to be on an equal playing field. That also applies to the jail and the way it functions. I want the jail to be better for the people who are there. That’s what it’s about for me: affecting change. To me, serving in this group is a good start. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to be honest, and not point out things that I don’t believe are right.”
Laws knows the power of the committee is limited to an advisory role, but she believes it can come up with ideas that will improve conditions.
“I see it as a big job,” she said. “We’re kind of limited as far as what methods we can use to tackle these problems. For example, ending cash bail. That’s something we can’t really do without the approval of others.”
But, above all, she hopes whatever recommendations the committee makes are taken seriously by the jail trust.
“At this point, it’s so early, I’m not completely sure how to feel about the effectiveness of the group,” Laws said last month. “I can say that we’ve been assured by (jail trust Chairperson) Tricia Everest and a few others publicly that they will be taken seriously.”
Bana: ‘We are trapping the most marginalized’
Sara Bana is an Oklahoma City human rights activist who has long been alarmed at the conditions at the jail. She, like Laws, has spoken at jail trust meetings and was invited to be on the committee.
Like a pilot reading a checklist before takeoff, Bana can tick off the things she’d change immediately at the jail if she had the power.
“I would like to end cash bail,” she said. “There needs to be a review of those who have serious mental health and medical conditions. We need to do a head count of every pod. The people there waiting for due process need to get it. The district attorney, who is fully in charge of who gets charged and plays a role in the bonds and bails, needs to do that head count. [Inmates’] everyday survival depends on that support.”
Bana also believes the jail is overcrowded, packed with people who haven’t committed violent offenses. Reducing that population has been the overarching goal of many on the jail trust itself. She hopes she can contribute to that effort through the committee.
“I think there has been strategic denial and delay of constitutionally guaranteed due-process rights,” she said. “There are a lot of people in the jail who are indigent Black or poor white, or who are mentally ill or disabled and who have chronic conditions. We have a clear idea of who is being oppressed. We are trapping the most marginalized and vulnerable individuals.”
While some members of the trust have said the committee has too many members, Bana would like it to be even bigger.
“I think we could use even more stakeholders that want to be part of solutions,” she said. “We may need to eventually break off into work groups. But, if I had one concern, those things are more long term work, and we are in an immediate crisis.”
A problem that may never be completely solved
Brandon Clabes joined the Midwest City Police Department in 1979 as an officer. This year marked his 22nd year as police chief, which makes him the most senior law enforcement official on the committee.
Clabes, who has announced his retirement, has seen the jail rise up from a construction site in downtown Oklahoma City to a 14-story tower. Like most residents of the county, he is fully aware of its problems.
Clabes said he believes Everest and others on the trust have done their best to make the jail better but are grappling with a problem that has been ongoing for years and may never be fully solved until there is a new jail.
“The trust has done the job, but it takes some time,” Clabes said. “I believe it’s more of an evolution, not a revolution.”
But, like Bana, he recognizes the immediate crisis.
“My concern is that the Department of Justice will come in and take control of the county jail. That’s always a threat that is still looming. And there’s really only so much Tricia and the trust can do with what’s there. It comes down to brick and mortar. I’ve always been one to take a step back and look at history, and I’m not a jail expert, but, to me, as someone who has worked in law enforcement, that jail was never designed right.”
Clabes said he got involved to make the jail better for those who have to live and work there, and he said he believes the other committee members feel the same.
“From what I can tell, it’s a very diverse group,” Clabes said. “There are a lot of people that care, and they wouldn’t be there if they didn’t. Every day in my job, and my daily life, I try to make it a goal to make positive changes. And I think everyone in that group has the same thing in mind.”
The full jail trust is set to meet today at 3 p.m.