OK County jail trust meeting
Criminal justice reform activist Sara Bana speaks Monday, Sept. 20, 2021, at the jail trust meeting after being initially denied the right to speak to the trust. (Matt Patterson)

The monthly Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority meeting got off to a fiery start Monday, owing to a clerical error that prevented one member of the public from addressing the trust.

Sara Bana, a local criminal justice activist, had planned to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting, but vice chairman Ben Brown initially refused to allow Bana to speak, saying that she had not signed up.

“You are not recognized,” Brown told Bana as she started to speak. 

“I am recognized,” Bana said.

Eventually, Brown called a five-minute recess and most of the trust members left the room while Bana continued to address those in the gallery.

“Since the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority assumed control of the OK County jail on July 1, 2020, conditions have steadily deteriorated,” Bana read from a prepared statement. “Despite consuming 40 percent of the county’s yearly budget, the jail continues to be a modern-day torture chamber, with a mortality rate over three times higher than the national average.”

Bana said she opposes the construction of a new jail until cash bond reform is implemented in the county.

“Until they have proven that they can be good stewards of taxpayer dollars in the current facility, that discussion is at best premature, and quite likely unnecessary once jail population reduction and reform have been achieved,” Bana said.

After five minutes, Brown returned and allowed Bana to speak formally to the trust.

“We’ve decided to take your word for it,” Brown said. “There’s a clerical error. You’re recognized for 3 minutes.”

Bana then finished her remarks.

Subcommittee recommendations presented

The Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority Action Committee submitted its final report to the trust Monday. The committee was formed earlier this year and is made up of members of the community. Its aim was to provide a series of recommendations to the trust to improve conditions at the jail.

It made recommendations across three areas. The jail’s administration, direct supervision for detainees and population reduction. Among the committee’s recommendations were:

  • “More pay for all employees at OCDC. The pay should be in line with the professionalism and hard work that is expected from all employees at OCDC. This would include monies for training, retention and promotion.”
  • “A cultural shift at the detention center to emphasize professionalism and compassion among the leadership, officers and all members of staff. We believe that once these values are embraced and entwined in every interaction that compassion and professionalism will become contagious.”
  • “Eliminate CLEET training as an employment incentive. It sends the wrong message and attracts those with a law enforcement mentality. Law enforcement and detention management are entirely different disciplines.”
  •  “Have a mental health specialist available for both staff and detainees.”
  • “Begin talking with the staff about Direct Supervision now. Explain what it is.”
  • “Add a Jail magistrate to eliminate delays and help judicial processes move more smoothly and time-efficiently.”
  • “End cash bail for non-violent offenders through judicial orders, cite and release programs, a revolving bail fund program for indigent arrestees, continued decrease of municipal offense incarceration.”
    • “Remove ICE agents from the OCDC.”

A full list of recommendations can be found here, here and here.

The Authority, which is also known as the jail trust, is not required to follow the recommendations of the committee. Francie Ekwerekwu, who served as the committee’s chairperson and also serves on the jail trust, asked when the recommendations might be considered.

“With receiving this report, when do you think when, or if, we should implement these recommendations at the jail?” she said. “It’s my understanding we’re just voting to receive the report, but what about suggesting, or supporting [jail administrator] Mr. (Greg) Williams in implementing some of these?”

Brown said it would be up to the jail trust’s chairman, Jim Couch.

“I think we would need Chairman Couch here, so I think for today there’s not an answer to your question as far as a timeline,” Brown said.

Trust member Kevin Calvey signaled some support for the recommendations after thanking those who participated.

“People who are dangerous need to be in jail. People who aren’t dangerous don’t need to be in jail,” Calvey said. “You don’t need to be in jail for missing court or traffic tickets. I filed bills on that when I was in the Legislature to try and do that, and unfortunately a bi-partisan group defeated them.”

Jail to get new system

The trust approved the purchase of a $750,000 a new jail control system for the detention center, to be installed by the Waco, Texas, based company Sydaptic. The jail control system is the electronic system that controls the jail’s elevators, closed circuit cameras and the locks on more than 160 doors in the facility.

Jail chief administrator Greg Williams said the system has been replaced just once since the facility opened, 30 years ago.

“The jail control system is an immediate need,” Williams said. “If that fails, it would cripple the operation of the detention center. There are about 160 gates and doors that are opened by that system that would have to be keyed. Even implementing a new system is going to be challenging for the staff. It’s critical. We need to replace it before it fails.”

The trust approved replacing the system by an 8-0 margin. The trust has nine members. Chairman Jim Couch was not present at Monday’s meeting.