seeking Oklahoma County's new jail
Detention officers escort a detainee in the Oklahoma County Jail on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. (Tres Savage)

During his career, developer Steve Mason has been involved in more than a few projects in Oklahoma City, including the Yale Theater, which he bought and brought back to life in the Capitol Hill area. As a volunteer, he also led the effort to build Camp Trivera in northeast OKC, which serves Girl Scouts from across the state. Last year, he hiked to Mount Everest base camp, which sits at nearly 18,000 feet above sea level.

Now, as chairman of the Oklahoma County Citizens Bond Oversight Advisory Board, Mason and other members are trying to right a 30-year wrong that has led to unnecessary deaths, expensive lawsuits and community-wide angst. The seven-member board was appointed by Oklahoma County commissioners tasked with finding a site and an architect for a new Oklahoma County jail, which voters approved funding in June 2022. The nearly $300 million project is set to be completed in 2026 or 2027.

Besides Mason, the board includes:

The group has been at work since January. In that time, they’ve put out an RFP for land acquisition and contractor selection. They have also interviewed at least four architects. Mason believes the committee has the know-how to get a new county jail done right this time, something that did not happen when the current 13-story tower opened in 1991. That facility, located downtown at the corner of Shartel Avenue and Northwest 1st Street, was immediately plagued by an array of problems ranging from sewage to escape attempts. The facility has been a rolling boondoggle ever since.

“We have a great committee,” Mason said. “They all bring different experiences. A former city manager. A former purchasing administrator at Tinker — she understands government processes. We have a member who built a couple of private prisons in Oklahoma. We have two members who are heavily involved in construction. We have a member who, as an architect, helped administer MAPS 3 for the city. It’s a well-rounded committee. They believe in our purpose, and they have real value with their talents.”

And it’s no easy job. Expectations that the jail be an asset rather than a constant problem are big. The current jail’s tower design has been a failure, reliant on elevators that often cease to work. The medical unit sits on the top floor of the facility, which makes getting critically ill detainees downstairs to an ambulance and to a hospital more trouble than it should be. Lines of sight for staff to monitor detainees are problematic up and down the facility.

All of those problems should be avoidable with the new facility.

“There is a strong expectation to design the correct jail,” Mason said. “The first step is hiring an architect that’s done this before. I’ve done a lot of buildings, but I’ve never designed a jail. So, it’s putting this team together of the architect and the contractor who has experience. I’m sure when this jail was designed 40 years ago, a lot of people probably applauded the design. We learned pretty quickly that we could design a better jail. There is a huge burden. I’ve built a lot of stuff. As a volunteer, I was in charge of the Girl Scout camp at the zoo. As a volunteer, I chaired the oversight for the State Capitol restoration for $280 million. And for me looking at what to do next, this is probably the most important next. There is a huge expectation from our neighbors to get it right. We are going to get it right.”

‘I couldn’t say no’

Community developer Sandino Thompson also serves on the committee analyzing site options for Oklahoma County’s new jail. The son of a prominent activist who ran youth intervention programs in the 1990s, Thompson grew up in northeast Oklahoma City and remains a resident of and business owner in the city’s historically Black side of town. In many respects, his involvement is personal.

“When the county decided to take this approach, it almost felt like — as a resident of the east side, which is disproportionately impacted by criminal justice — it seemed like I really didn’t have a choice,” Thompson said. “I couldn’t say ‘No.’ It felt like it was time to step up and do something more positive and help build a jail that was a better place.”

But there are plenty of obstacles ahead of that. During the most recent Citizens Bond Oversight Advisory Board meeting, about 10 people spoke during the public comment period imploring members to put the jail anywhere else but where they live. The NIMBY acronym — “Not In My Backyard” — was on full display. All who spoke were courteous and to the point, but Thompson and the other members are aware there may be ferocious opposition as the list of potential site options is winnowed down.

Thompson drew comparisons to parts of cities that were destroyed to make way for highway projects, such as Interstate 235’s construction through the heart of Black Oklahoma City’s Deep Deuce area.

“I think the reality is we have to be cognizant of that aspect of it,” he said. “It was the easy thing to do to put a highway through a less-privileged community because they have less ability to fight those things. We’ve seen the negative impacts of that approach. That’s one of the things that you want to balance when you talk about compromise. I think there will be some push and pull. Very few communities, if any, are going to want to have a jail. We have to balance that with historical precedence and how these sites have been developed with what the best options are.”

A wish list for Oklahoma County’s new jail

Jail trust chairman Ben Brown and jail public information officer Mark Opgrande talk Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023, in a pod on the eighth floor of the Oklahoma County Jail that has been closed for repairs. (Tres Savage)

Sue Ann Arnall has been a member of the jail trust since it took over the day-to-day operations of the jail in 2020. Since then, the influential philanthropist has funded a diversion program at the jail and has advocated for detainees to have more time outside their cells.

Arnall does not serve on the bond oversight committee, but she has articulated a wish list for the new facility.

“It would be close enough to services that people would need to access when they get out of jail,” Arnall said. “The site itself should have two buildings. One for processing that would allow for them to be evaluated for physical and mental health, and it would include diversion programs and maybe even a public defender that would be there to work with the DA to see if they can dismiss the charges if they aren’t serious. Right now, we have a lot of people coming in for municipal charges — for things like trespassing — that might not need to be put in jail.”

Other items Arnall desires include space for programming inside the jail itself, which she said could give detainees an opportunity to earn their GED. All of these would be inside a facility with three levels of security and direct supervision, which would allow detainees to spend more time outside of their cells.

“It would not be a tower, and (it needs) a better medical facility that is easily accessible,” Arnall said. “I am hoping we are able to get more people released on medical OR bonds. Some people who have been in because of serious crimes we can’t get out, but I think increasing the amount of medical OR bonds is something that can and should be done.”

Arnall said she would also like the new jail to receive more natural light.

“In the current facility, they can’t see outside which I think is just awful,” she said. “Those are things that I hope are taken into consideration as it is designed.”

Thompson echoed many of Arnall’s hopes for Oklahoma County’s new jail.

“I want to see adequate medical and mental health facilities, which is something that needs to be incorporated in the design,” he said. “I don’t want it to be a tower, and I doubt that would even be considered. We need to make it more about getting people processed and moved through the facility as safely and efficiently as possible, and a tower doesn’t allow for that.”

But building a shorter and wider facility presents its own challenges.

“I think it’s going to be difficult to find a spot because you’re likely not going to have the number of acres needed in the core of the city,” Thompson said. “Inherently, that’s going to lead to some hard conversations and a balancing act.”

The general contractor will be hired before the architect in an effort to make the design process as efficient as possible. Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council executive director Tim Tardibono compared the process to cooking a meal.

“The architect will help with the planning and design of what we hope is a safer and better facility, not just through bricks and mortar but through outdoor recreation areas, job training within the facility, and you have to design all of that into the system — space for (a) diversion hub and drug court,” he said. “The design piece is important, it’s like setting the table and then you hire the architect to pick out the menu, and then the contractor and the architect cook the meal. If you can get them together as early as possible in the process, it goes a long way in determining how good it is.”

There will be other challenges no matter where the new jail is ultimately located.

“Does the site have things like water and sewer, and is the land level? Is there going to be electric and natural gas?” Tardibono asked. “People have to remember that with 1,800 beds and 300 staff, this jail will be like a small town. Whether the area can support it as far as consumption of those things like electricity and water is another factor. And there are going to be zoning considerations. Is it zoned for industrial use or residential use? If it’s zoned for residential, that would require a change. We’ve had some residents speak about that at meetings, and they’ve laid out their cases well, and we’re not oblivious to that.”

Meanwhile, the county could also face competition from private sector entities vying for the same land sought for the jail. That’s one reason why Tardibono said he expects the list of potential sites to see some attrition.

“Someone could simply buy a parcel out from under us, especially in areas that have the potential for commercial development,” Tardibono said. “And that would show us the land is probably better suited for entertainment or something else besides a jail. That’s just part of the process. The list isn’t going to be the same list in a month and a half just because of natural attrition.”

The list of potential new jail sites now

Oklahoma County
Voters approved a $260 million bond package Tuesday, June 28, 2022, to support building a new Oklahoma County Jail. (Michael Duncan)

The agenda for the April 25 meeting of the Citizens Bond Oversight and Advisory Board listed 10 potential sites for the new Oklahoma County Jail.

Because it will not be a tower, this facility is expected to require a larger footprint than the current jail. The list reflects that dynamic in many ways, with sprawling sites up for consideration from near the airport to far northeast OKC. The smallest piece of land listed is 51 acres.

The possible sites include:

  • 59 acres of land at 17501 NE 150th St., which is offered for sale by David and Toni Hennessey;
  • 69 acres of land at the northwest corner of Interstate 35 and Britton Road, which is offered for sale by Oakes Technology Park, LLC;
  • Between 80 and 132 acres of land south of the intersection of Midwest Boulevard and Wilshire Boulevard, which is offered for sale by the Ted Eckroat and Pat Eckroat Revocable Living Trust;
  • 71 acres of land at 1901 E. Grand Blvd., which is offered for sale by Willowbrook Investments LLC and Garrett & Company Resources LLC;
  • 63 acres of land along SE 29th Street west of the Kickapoo Turnpike, which is offered for sale by Tsalagi Development LLC, whose managing member is Randy Goodman;
  • 89 acres of land at NE 10th and I-35, which is offered for sale by the Commissioners of the Land Office and the Oklahoma City Water Trust;
  • 133 acres of land at 5500 Lincoln Blvd., which is offered for sale by the Commissioners of the Land Office;
  • 51 acres of land on the southwest corner of Portland Avenue and Memorial Road, which is offered for sale by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation;
  • Up to 160 acres of land at 5201 South Meridian Ave., which is offered for sale by the Oklahoma City Airport Trust;
  • Up to 192 acres of land between South Newcastle Road and Southwest 54th Street, which is offered for sale by the Oklahoma City Airport Trust.