The Oklahoma County commissioners voted today to accept a recommendation to construct a new jail, though they are taking a wait-and-see approach on the use of American Rescue Plan Act funds to pay for a substantial portion of the proposed project.
Commissioners voted unanimously to approve a plan to construct a new 1,800-bed facility that could house up to 1,400 inmates in its general population and another 400 in a medical and mental health section. The new jail is estimated to cost $297 million, although the location and the specific design footprint (graphics embedded below) are yet to be determined.
The plan has been working its way through county government for some time. Listening sessions were held this year by the county’s Criminal Justice Advisory Council and FSB, an architectural and engineering firm hired to study various options for fixing the troubled facility, which opened in 1991.
Most recently, reports from the Oklahoma State Department of Health and the National Institute of Corrections, were highly critical of the condition of current jail.
FSB looked into renovating the current jail, building a new one or constructing an annex that would alleviate some of the strain on the current jail. The firm recommended building a new jail in October.
Concerns about using ARPA funds
The county is eligible for about $150 million in ARPA funds, aimed at providing federal funding assistance for states and communities impacted by the pandemic. Using Oklahoma County’s ARPA money for the jail has been under discussion, but the commissioners did not approve the use of ARPA funds Monday.
In addition to ARPA funds, the county could dedicate up to $110 million in general obligation bonds. (Bonds currently on the books are set to expire in the coming years, putting the county in a position to have additional bonding capacity.)
District 1 Commissioner Carrie Blumert expressed concern about using the federal ARPA money to build a new jail.
“I’ve been very open and transparent that I’m still not quite sold on using ARPA money for our jail,” she said. “I’m not quite there yet. I’ve met with a lot of community partners who are desperate for funds to help people.”
Commissioners are also awaiting further legal guidance on the use of ARPA funds. District 2 Commissioner Brian Maughan said the board is in the process of obtaining that counsel.
“We will ask for legal guidance that it is legally appropriate to use the funds to build the jail,” he said. “I think this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Commissioners agree on need
Although she expressed concern about using ARPA funds for the new jail, Blumert said the public wants the Board of County Commissioners to address the situation at the jail.
“On the flip side, I do believe we need a new jail, and I’ve said that since I started campaigning in 2017,” she said. “Over the last few weeks, having seen these forums and going to meetings, I’ve felt conflicted. But when it comes to voting on bond issues that are about to expire, I believe we have a small window of time to do this. In all my campaigning, the large majority of folks were supportive of a new jail.”
District 3 Commissioner Kevin Calvey, who announced his campaign for Oklahoma County district attorney last month, chided those who have spoken out against the proposed new jail over the last year.
“It’s the same people, the same tiny army of extremists making the same shop-worn arguments,” Calvey said. “The community — both liberal and conservative — wants this.”
Maughan said he initially saw the idea of a new jail as a non-starter. But, over the years, his mind has changed.
“I have previously said I didn’t want to build a new facility, but in researching a lot of the original designs that are supposed to last 25 or 30 years,” he said. “Now the building is 30 years old. This will take some time to build, as all these projects do, and that’s if we get all the approvals in place to get it done.”
Public speaks out for, against new jail
People’s Council for Justice Reform leader Sara Bana opposes the proposed new jail. She said the public is looking for better and more transparent leadership.
“The hard-working people of this county deserve ethical, responsible and financially sound leadership, and yet the people of this county are on the verge of getting defrauded again,” she told commissioners Monday. “For nearly a decade, the people of this county have been asking for proactive, preventive and evidence-based healthy approaches to public safety and crime and violence reduction. And yet, during a pandemic, we are about to be conned out of $140 million in ARPA money to fund profiteers in mass incarcerations.”
Hannah Royce said the process by which the plan has been discussed with the public has been too short.
“Two listening sessions is not enough,” Royce told commissioners Monday. “On paper, everything has been supposedly checked off. The consultant reports from the fancy institute etc. But it’s no secret this plan is not new. It’s not even a few months old. It’s been a long-term effort, and I believe meetings have been held since 2018 and 2019 with land owners surrounding the jail to talk about acquisition before this recommendation to build a new jail was ever submitted. This process must take more time and include more public input in the process.”
Oklahoma Disability Law Center attorney Joy Turner said she’s seen enough of the current jail to know it’s not fixable.
“Our office has been in the county jail since 2019, and it is our belief the current jail, no matter the upgrades that could be made to that, can’t be updated or fixed to meet DOJ and constitutional requirements for inmates,” Turner told commissioners.
Dan Straughan, who serves on the CJAC facilities subcommittee, told commissioners it is time for a change.
“We dug through the cost benefits. It was pretty clear a new jail was the only viable solution,” he said. “The facility subcommittee came to those five recommendations by consensus. We took those five recommendations to the CJAC, and they unanimously approved them. Then we took them to the jail trust, and they unanimously approved them. We can’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. I would love it if Oklahoma City could survive without detention facility at all. That’s not possible. So we have an obligation to have one that meets 21st century standards.”