There is no shortage of opinions on what should be done about the Oklahoma County Jail. Advocates for building a new jail have touted the safety and efficiency benefits of such a project, while those in opposition believe the money will be wasted if the same people remain in charge of the troubled facility.
Now, after years of conversation and months of campaigning from competing factions, Oklahoma County voters will finally have their say Tuesday when they decide on a $260 million bond package that will either make or break the proposed project. Since it opened in 1991, the 13-story Oklahoma County Jail has been problematic and deadly. Poor design and construction quality have led to a myriad of issues, and a seemingly endless spate of inmate deaths rose to 16 last year. So far this year, there have been eight deaths inside the beleaguered jail.
To add to its woes, jail CEO Greg Williams was caught on an audio recording praising COVID-19 and how the pandemic has benefited the jail. Among other problems, one jail employee was arrested last month for allegedly bringing drugs into the facility, and other employees have been prosecuted for a variety of charges.
But despite the decrepit state of the jail and the prospect of a long-looming Department of Justice takeover of the facility, opinions differ on how best to handle the situation, and those differences could make for a close vote Tuesday. Those who want to build a new jail cite the need to fix an undeniable structural problem that contributes to trauma and deaths. Those who oppose Tuesday’s ballot question point out the cost and the need for more robust efforts to assist those with mental illness who often find their way into the jail as detainees.
‘People need to know the real number isn’t $260 million’
In a meeting room at Ralph Ellison Library in northeast Oklahoma City, Cherisse Baker set up a white board with information about the cost of a new jail for a crowd of about 35 who gathered earlier this month to hear from members of the People’s Council for Justice Reform.
The meeting was one of about a half dozen the grassroots organization has held this summer leading up to the election. The group opposes the jail for a myriad of reasons.
For one, its members believe the new jail will have a higher prisoner capacity than the old jail, which could lead to more incarceration. Its cost is another critical factor. While the project is estimated to cost about $300 million to build, that doesn’t include interest payments on the bonds, which opponents say could make the project a billion dollar jail. (Proponents say the interest costs will be significantly below the maximum 10 percent that would be authorized in the ballot initiative.) And finally, opponents don’t trust the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority — also known as the jail trust — or Williams to run and operate a new facility in a competent manner.
At the Ralph Ellison Library in early June, the audience was receptive and engaged. Many asked questions about the jail or described experiences they’ve had inside it.
“We literally formed because so many other organizations were in cahoots,” Baker said. “At a recent commissioners meeting, they were talking about when the jail is built as though [the vote] has already happened. We don’t think anyone should be able to build a new jail without the votes.”
The meetings have been backed by a campaign to get the word out in other ways. During NonDoc’s recent Oklahoma County District Attorney debates the group put cards on cars with a QR code that would lead people to a website with information about why they oppose the new jail. At the library, longtime activist and organizer Mark Faulk told the audience how he purchased the domains okcountyjail.com and okcountyjail.org.
“That just shows you how incompetent they are,” Faulk said as the audience laughed.
Faulk said he believes the proposed approach is all wrong. In his eyes, a new jail should only come after criminal justice reforms. Current laws, he said, lead to people being incarcerated often for no other reason than because they are poor.
“I think we all agree there are problems with the existing building, but what people want to know about is what has the county done to take steps to alleviate the problems created by over-crowding and the problems that create drug overdoses or the horrific conditions,” Faulk said. “The reality is, if you reduce the population on the front end, we know the jail population could be cut in half. Even Texas has closed prisons. Oklahoma is still in a 1980s mindset.”
Baker spoke of the proposed project’s cost, which is being estimated at $297 million to build. The $260 million in bonds will be subject to interest. Under state statute, the interest parameters must be included in ballot language, and Tuesday’s proposal notes that interest rates could be up to 10 percent.
“I’m 39 now, and in 30 years I’ll be 69, and what am I going to be looking at after paying all this interest on a jail,” Baker said. “And people say that it’s a $260 million bond, and it’s not going to increase our taxes. We’re fine with that. But on the back end, we (could) have $780 million we’re going to be paying in interest, and that’s going to be going to an investor. So $26 million of our general fund every year will be going to pay investors for a county jail to incarcerate people. That’s just crazy.”
Village City Council member Sean Cummings is also a member of the People’s Council for Justice Reform and is a frequent critic of both the jail trust and county commissioners. Like Baker, he cringes at the potential cost of a new jail.
“People need to know the real number and the real number isn’t $260 million, you have to add the interest to it,” Cummings said. “It may be $700 million or it may be $600 million. Regardless, it’s a lot of money.”
Cummings also objects to the idea the trust would still be charged with overseeing a new jail. Cummings doesn’t believe the body is competent enough to handle the job.
“People want to know why the jail is so bad, and my answer is the reason is because we keep doing the same thing over and over again,” Cummings said. “I literally feel like we need an intervention. If my teenage son wrecks a car because he’s irresponsible, I’m not going to go out and buy him a new car. My thing when you look at public facilities like jails is competence, and they don’t have it.”
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‘The current jail is trauma inducing all around’
Proponents of the Oklahoma County jail bond election have their own website — FixTheJail.com — and organizations. The Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council, otherwise known as CJAC, was formed by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce and supports construction of a new jail, as well as the bond issue that will go before voters.
CJAC executive director Tim Tardibono is optimistic voters will approve the jail bond funding Tuesday.
“We’re hopeful, because we’ve put together a good package for voters,” Tardibono said. “There is no tax increase, and it solves a 30-year problem by providing a safer, appropriate-sized jail at a time when we are seeing an increase in diversion programs. We think it will improve public safety.”
District 1 County Commissioner Carrie Blumert also supports the new jail and said in a recent forum that the 10 percent maximum interest rate being discussed by opponents will not come to fruition.
“We are going to get whatever the market rate is at the time,” Blumert said. “Right now, we’re looking at around 4 percent, maybe a little bit higher. Assuming that interest rates don’t triple in the next two weeks, we won’t have 10 percent interest.”
Tardibono cited a recent bond election in The Village that contained the same language regarding the maximum interest rate.
“Their argument that the bond would have a 10 percent interest rate is simply misleading the voter,” Tardibono said.
Tardibono said the number will likely be half that.
“I’ve discussed this issue with the county’s bond counsel at length, and they expect the county jail bond to be closer to 4 percent, but not all the way up to 5 percent, and certainly not 10 percent,” he said.
Jail trust member Sue Ann Arnall also supports the new jail and hopes others will too. But she doesn’t understand why some believe punishing the trust by not voting for the bond helps those inside the jail. She said the jail trust has had to grapple with problems like staffing challenges and the poor design of the current jail, which came about long before the trust was formed.
“There are people who are angry at the jail trust, but for some reason want to punish people inside the jail because of their dislike of the trust,” Arnall said. “They say that the trust doesn’t need a new jail because they can’t operate this one. That just seems crossways to me. By punishing us, ultimately, it seems as though they are also punishing those inside the jail.”
Arnall said her greatest concern remains those who are inside the jail, which is why she hopes the bond passes.
“To see the current jail and the circumstances there, it’s just very difficult,” Arnall said. “With a new jail, I don’t think we’d feel like we are imposing trauma on people. The current jail is trauma inducing all around. With a new one, I know it would be a better atmosphere for everyone.”
The inclusion of a mental health wing inside the proposed new jail has also been controversial. Faulk and others believe jails should not be homes for mental health facilities. The proposed jail would include bed space for 1,400 prisoners in the general population, with another 400 set aside for medical and mental health issues.
“There is a bigger conversation that needs to be had about should people who are facing mental health episodes be charged criminally, but right now the law is if they have been charged criminally they have to be in jail, so we still have to be able to serve those people,” Tardibono said.
District 2 Commissioner Bryan Maughan and District 3 Commissioner Kevin Calvey also support the new jail.
“You can’t fix 13 stories,” Calvey said in a commissioners meeting earlier this year. “Just the design alone. There are many things in that jail that are just not fixable. It costs far more to operate than a better-designed jail.”
In an interview with NonDoc earlier this year, Maughan said the chance to build the new jail is once in a lifetime.
“You never want to take anything for granted, but I’m telling you this is the first pragmatic proposal I’ve seen since we’ve been commissioners that addresses the jail,” Maughan said.
Early voting for the Oklahoma County jail bond election runs through 2 p.m. Saturday, with polls open Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.