new jail site
From left to right, Oklahoma County Council of Bond Oversight members Larry Stevens, Chairman Steve Mason and Joanne Davis listen to remarks from Gina Sofola during a meeting Tuesday, June 20, 2023. (Matt Patterson)

The Oklahoma County Citizens Bond Oversight Committee is targeting August as its deadline to recommend a site location to the Board of County Commissioners for the new jail approved by voters last year, although the decision could come as early as July. 

The committee is currently evaluating 10 sites for the new jail. Bond funding for the $300 million facility was approved by county voters in June 2022 following years of community discussion about the need for a new jail to replace the troubled facility that has been marred by problems since it opened in 1991. The Oklahoma County Jail has seen a rash of detainee deaths in recent years that has outraged many in the community. 

At a meeting today, the August target date was revealed during a discussion among committee member Xavier Neira, Chairman Steve Mason and county engineer Stacey Trumbo about the project’s architect and potential contractors.

Global design firm HOK has been selected by the committee as the architectural firm to design the new jail. That firm has designed buildings in the United States and around the world, according to its website.

Previously, HOK had also been hired to study options for a new county jail in 2021. At the time, those options included refurbishing the current building. Ultimately, HOK recommended to the county that it build a completely new facility. 

“I guess what I’m sensing is that we’d like to make a recommendation in August,” Mason said to fellow committee members.

Neira, who has construction industry experience, replied.

“I think we make our recommendation earlier, but it’s up to Stacey’s team to decide the right timing to coincide with the architect’s work,” Neira said. 

Current site to be revisited 

While the committee is looking at 10 potential sites for a new county jail, its current location is not among them. However, at the suggestion of a member of the public, the committee is going to take at least a cursory look at building the jail on the old site near downtown that currently has a relatively small footprint because of its tower design.

During the public comment portions of recent committee meetings, a number of residents of northeast OKC have urged the committee to consider somewhere other than their side of town for the new jail. 

Tuesday, northeast OKC resident Gina Sofola urged the committee to take one more look at possibly locating the jail on its current property. 

“I think that you have brilliant minds that are here who can come up with a solution logistically and economically and one that does not impact any community,” she said. “As I’ve said earlier, wherever you locate this, someone is going to be angry, someone is going to be concerned. You are now creating a relocation situation, you are creating a transportation issue. All of the services that are necessary for the daily operation of the county jail are here downtown.”

Trumbo, the county engineer, appeared to pour some cold water on that idea when asked by members of the committee if the current site should be included in the evaluations. 

“It’s been looked at about three times since 2011 by professionals, and the consensus has always been to go to a new green-field site to get the one-story concept,” Trumbo told the committee. “The one-story concept needs 25-plus acres just for the incarceration itself, and everything around it would get us to 50 plus acres, and you don’t have that. You have about eight (acres downtown). So that is the downside to that site.”

Neira, who owns a real estate and development consulting firm, said a blank slate makes things less complicated. 

“From a construction perspective, it is a lot easier to work with a green field than to try to retrofit a space with the logistics and everything that entails from a construction perspective (that) would drive the cost up,” he said. “I think it’s fair to review the previous analysis, but purely from a construction perspective, it is easier to go with a green-field site.”

Committee member Sandino Thompson said there was some brief conversation about the current site early in the process, but more could be done to educate members of the public on why it may not be the best option. 

“I think we should look at it again,” Thompson said. “I recall early on in the process there were some preliminary considerations about the existing site vs. a new site. I think once we have the architect on board, we can do a better job of educating the public the way some of us have been educated as far as what kind of features would be most conducive to dealing with the challenges we have from a corrections standpoint.”