One by one, people stepped up to the microphone to tell their stories Thursday night at Firth Street Baptist Church during the first of two listening sessions hosted by the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council, otherwise known as CJAC.
CJAC hired FSB, an Oklahoma City based architectural and engineering firm to study three options to address the long-troubled Oklahoma County Jail. Those options include renovating the current jail, building a completely new facility or constructing an annex to improve functionality of the 13-story tower that opened in 1991.
A preliminary report is expected in the fall, with recommendations eventually making their way to the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority which oversees day-to-day operations.
“Today we’re here to listen,” FSB’s John Semtner said. “To listen to what your vision is for our detention center in our community.”
Semtner and others on the panel — including Rep. Jason Lowe (D-OKC), CJAC director Tim Tardibono, ACLU Oklahoma director Tamya Cox-Touré and activist Jabee Williams — got an earful.
‘I lost a brother’
As the meeting began, word of yet another death at the jail began to circulate. A 53-year-old man was found unresponsive and died at an area hospital, according to a KFOR report. Another detainee had died Tuesday.
Rachel Kimbrough is familiar with death at the Oklahoma County Jail. Her brother, Lee Choteau, 31, was arrested on suspicion of DUI June 24. He died hours after entering the jail.
“I lost a brother,” she said. “Our lives will never be the same. I feel for anyone who has to deal with this. It’s inhumane. Nobody deserves this. They are not animals. A dog is treated better at the pound than my brother was treated. Fifteen hours. Fifteen hours and nobody checked on him. He was suffering, and he died in that jail cell alone, and we have to live with that every single day.”
‘You hear people beating on each other’
Steven Jones told the panel he was arrested in October and spent 10 days in the jail. He described it as a place he can’t believe exists.
“They took me into a cell where there was just one inmate,” he began. “Two hours later they brought in another inmate. About six in the morning, we got another inmate. Now it’s really overcrowded. Two of the people didn’t have a mattress to lay on. The place was infested with all kinds of different insects, bed bugs or whatever. It was horrible.”
Jones said the horror really begins when the lights go off.
“During the middle of the night there’s continual fighting,” he said. “You hear people beating on each other. This is constant. Every night. That’s the reason why you have so many inmates who don’t make it out of there.”
‘I’ve spent three months in lockdown’
Lynn Dunaway told the panel her experiences as a pregnant woman inside the jail, not knowing what the experience might mean for the health of her baby, now a young boy who quietly watched a cartoon from one of the pews as his mother spoke.
Dunaway said there were some staff that attempt to treat detainees humanely, but they are pushed to the limit.
“It has opened my eyes to the amount of work that is put on some of the good corrections officers, turning them into people they don’t want to be,” she said. “Good people have been hired, but I’ve also seen 18-year-olds hired into jobs, children, where they’re pushed so hard to the limit they don’t care anymore.”
Those in jail are also pushed to the brink.
“I’ve spent three months in my cell on lock down,” Dunaway said. “No shower. Hours in between meals. I’m talking over 10 hours between meals. No hygiene products for women. One time I was five months pregnant with my son, and I laid on the cold floor of the holding cell for 36 hours waiting to be taken to a cell on the 13th floor.”
Father airs frustrations at OK County Jail forum
Larry Shaw drove across town from Bethany to speak. He told the panel about the frustration he experienced while his son, Jonathan, was incarcerated at the jail earlier this year.
“He and his cellmate were, for lack of a better word, crapping in a garbage bag,” Shaw said. “They were urinating in this bag. During the February arctic freeze, I talked to him and he said he needed another blanket. I called and asked the people at the jail, and I was told they were going to be distributing more blankets. But he never got one.”
Shaw said his son was responsible for what he did to end up in jail, but he said people deserve to be treated better regardless.
“When an inmate can’t go to the bathroom in any better situation than that, or have a blanket when they’re cold, or have a family member visit virtually or not, that’s just not acceptable,” he said.
New jail not an option for some
Criminal justice activist Jess Eddy was among those who believes the current structure is not salvageable.
“That jail is a house of horrors and needs to be demolished,” he said. “There is no saving that because it’s inflicted a trauma so great on this community, and particularly the Black community, because we know they are disparately impacted and disparately incarcerated, disparately treated by the district attorney and by the Oklahoma City Police Department.”
But Eddy and others are also skeptical whether CJAC’s recommendations will be acted upon by the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority — also called the jail trust — and where funding for a new jail or annex might come from.
“I want to say to the consultants and to CJAC and to the elected officials in this room: We’ve been saying these things for 20 years,” Williams said. “The question is whether you will act on our experience and in our interest.”
Oklahoma City restaurant owner Sean Cummings said a new jail isn’t the answer.
“If you do another jail built for 2,000, they’re going to put 4,000 in, and we’re back to having the same talk again,” he said. “The real question is why is 80 percent of the people are unable to get out of there when they haven’t been convicted of anything? You are not the people to talk to tonight. You’ve got skin in the game. You want to make money on the deal. What we have to look at is how we are jailing and the long term costs, and none of that is solved by building a new jail.”
Cox-Touré said new buildings don’t solve systemic problems.
“Our hope and our goal is not to be building new facilities but getting to the root cause of where this issue is as well as reducing the incarceration rate,” she said.