In a 54-minute special meeting this afternoon, the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority, otherwise known as the jail trust, approved recommendations by the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council (CJAC) to construct a new county jail.
The list of new jail recommendations are:
- Build a better detention center that meets American Correctional Association standards on a new site;
- Ensure appropriate funding, which would include a vote to extend existing general obligation bonds;
- Limit the new jail to feature no more than 950 housing units;
- Continue criminal justice diversion efforts to create a cap at 85 percent occupancy;
- Create a site selection and construction oversight task force.
The motion to accept the recommendations passed 7-0 among jail trust members.
The new jail is estimated to cost about $297 million and would be capable of housing up to 1,800 prisoners, with 400 of those beds devoted to inmates with medical or mental health issues.
Part of the funding package for the proposed new jail includes about $154 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds related to the coronavirus pandemic. Another component includes the issuance of up to $110 million in general obligation bonds through a vote of county residents. Proponents of the bonds note that property taxes likely would not increase because existing county bonds are scheduled to be paid off in 2023 and 2024.
The final decision to build a jail rests in the hands of the Board of County Commissioners, which is scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. Monday, Dec. 6. If approved, the jail would be expected to open in 2025 or 2026, according to estimates provided by CJAC.
‘You can’t fix 13 stories’
Jail trust Chairman Jim Couch said Monday the opportunity to construct a new jail facility comes at a unique time, with the availability of ARPA funds and the existing general obligation bonds that are set to expire.
Couch said the current building simply doesn’t work.
“The fact of the matter is, the building has some issues,” he said. “The multiple stories with the elevators is a problem. Medical facilities aren’t good. Intake and release is problematic. It’s not particularly functional. Recreational areas are really poor, and there’s nothing we can do about that. There are some benefits that a new building could bring to the health and wellness of our inmates.”
Jail trust member and Oklahoma County District 3 Commissioner Kevin Calvey echoed those concerns.
“At the end of the day, you can’t fix 13 stories,” Calvey said.
Jail trust member Loretta Radford said the design of the new jail will be critical, citing the many problems the current facility has seen since it opened in 1991.
“If the design is poor when you are incarcerating individuals, the only thing you are going to have is internal violence,” she said. “The major problem with that (current) jail is there is no natural light source except for that small recreational area. I’m pleased with the presentation about the new jail in terms of where we go from here, but the success of the new jail is dependent on sources this board has no control over.”
‘There really isn’t a false choice’ on new jail recommendations
Some have criticized the idea of building a new jail. Citizen activist Mark Faulk told the jail trust Monday that other things should be prioritized first.
“I said this at the CJAC meeting, and I’ll say it again: What we need first is a smaller mental health facility. A drug and alcohol facility. Transformative bail reform, or a revolving bail fund to keep low-level offenders out who don’t belong in there,” Faulk said. “Those things can be done first.”
Criminal justice reform activist Jess Eddy told the trust that a new jail is necessary, but that he has reservations about what the future holds.
“As someone who is committed to the cause of abolition and abolishing the norms and functions of law enforcement through incarceration, I have to say I am ambivalent to support this cause to construct a new facility,” Eddy told the jail trust. “However, if I set my ideologies aside and look at the practical implications and outcomes to continue down the road with the current facility and the human cost and the price vulnerable people housed in there will pay, it’s made very clear to me the only path forward is the construction of a new facility.”
CJAC executive director Tim Tardibono said some have presented a false choice when it comes to building a new jail.
“Some folks are trying to put you all into a false choice between building a new jail or seeking alternatives to drug addiction and mental health,” he said. “There really isn’t a false choice. The answer is we should do both. We should continue the work that has brought the jail population down, just five, seven (or) nine years ago, where it was over 2,500 or 2,600 flirting with the Health Department’s capacity level of 2,800. Because of the work of CJAC partners like TEEM, ReMerge, drug court, community sentencing, the Diversion Hub, that population has come down, and most in the field believe there is more that can be done.”