For years, the Oklahoma County Jail has faced hurdles recruiting and retaining staff in what can be a challenging work environment. But frontline employees who work with detainees will be getting a bump in pay thanks to a 5 percent raise approved by the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority today.
That pay increase is in addition to a 2.5 percent bump approved by Oklahoma County Commissioners, meaning most jail employees will see a 7.5 percent pay raise. The increase does not apply to administrative staff.
Jail CEO Brandi Garner spoke about current staffing levels at Monday’s meeting of the OCCJA, also knows as the jail trust. Garner said the jail has 268 employees with 136 fully trained as detention officers. Garner said the jail started a new training academy Monday featuring 23 people, with about 30 more in the early hiring stages.
New jail trust CFO Chris Sherman said the aim was to get raises to the employees who are most difficult to retain.
“It’s for lieutenants and below,” Sherman told the trust, which took over management of the troubled facility from the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office in 2020. “Those are our boots on the ground. Those are the people we have to keep on staff. We have to do something for them, and we’re in a position right now with as many open positions as we’ve had over the years, this is absolutely something we can do.”
Oklahoma County District 3 Commissioner Myles Davidson, who serves on the jail trust, said the raise helps keep up with inflation.
“[Consumer Price Index] is 6.3 percent, so not only are you keeping up with inflation, but you’re going above and beyond a little bit,” he said. “I know it’s very difficult — especially as we look at the highway patrol, OKC and Del City — everyone taking from our recruits and putting them onto their streets, and they’re paying $70,000, and we’re wondering why we can’t keep people. It’s pretty obvious.”
Sue Ann Arnall told fellow trust members the pay bump was a good start, but not enough.
“Considering that we’ve had 7 to 8 percent inflation for the last two years, and I think it was six the year before, I appreciate giving this raise, but it’s still not keeping up with inflation,” she said. “And I know that none of the county employees are getting a raise equivalent to inflation, but we’re way behind. Eventually, I hope we can catch up.”
Sherman, who has been in his position for about five weeks, also identified at least one area where the trust is saving money when it comes to the day-to-day costs of running the jail.
“We were spending about $4,000 a month on Styrofoam, and the only reason we were is because they weren’t bringing the trays back down from the floors,” Sherman told the trust. “We’re purchasing trays for three floors. We have the trays, but we’re not using them as of yet. But just in those ways we’ve already started to cut down on a product that we were using in areas where we don’t need to be spending that kind of money.”
Sherman also told the trust the Oklahoma Department of Corrections has been late on recent payments to the jail trust for DOC detainees. Sherman said the amount of the DOC’s most recent late payment was about $60,000. Trust chairman Joe Allbaugh, who used to lead the DOC, took exception with his former agency’s tardiness.
“As a result, we’re going to be $60,000 in the hole, according to the numbers that I see,” he told fellow trust members. “I think we need to have a letter sent to DOC and remind them they’re not allowed to fund their organization on the backs of Oklahoma County taxpayers. It’s not right for agencies to poach other agencies and balance their budget while we’re in the hole.”
But officials with the Department of Corrections told NonDoc they “are not aware of any issues with payments to the Oklahoma County Jail.”
“We received the initial invoice on Sept. 5, 2023, and the requested adjusted invoice on Sept. 13,” said Kay Thompson, chief of communications for the state agency. “It was submitted to our accounts payable department on Sept. 19, and the payment should be issued any day. Per Oklahoma state statutes, state agencies have 45 days to pay invoices.”
Detainee’s mother speaks
Dina “Latrell” Kirven died at the Oklahoma County Jail on May 8 after being found unresponsive in a receiving area’s holding cell. Kirven arrived at the jail only hours earlier after being arrested on suspicion of unauthorized use of a motorized vehicle. Including Kirven, seven jail detainees have died so far this year
Kirven’s mother, Volare Scott, addressed the trust Monday.
“My son passed away 177 days ago in the county jail,” she said. “It’s basically neglect, because after he was put into a holding cell, no one checked on him and he died within 30 to 45 minutes. I’m just now finding out about a lot of things that are coming forward, and I just want to let you guys know that I travel from Atlanta. This time, I traveled over 14 hours, so that lets you know how serious I am about this.”
Scott said explaining what happened to her son has been difficult because she has so few answers herself.
“I’m having trouble sleeping, and I need to know exactly what happened,” she said. “I’ve been doing my own investigation as his mother, and I also have three other sons that are bothered by this. It’s hard to explain to them what happened because we don’t have answers. All I keep hearing is that we have to wait until we have the autopsy report. I’m not worried about the autopsy report at this time. I’m worried about the staff that was put into place to watch over these inmates who mysteriously keep passing on in the county (jail). We still need answers. I need to see for myself.”
Scott requested a tour of the jail from Garner, who was present for her remarks, and also a meeting with Sheriff Tommie Johnson. It was not immediately clear if those requests will be granted.
Oklahoma County has faced a spate of lawsuits in recent months related to jail deaths. In August, a federal jury found in favor of the county in a lawsuit over the 2019 death of Daryl Clinton. That death happened prior to the trust taking over the day-to-day jail operations in July 2020.
Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office transportation MOU deferred
The trust voted to defer renewal of a Memorandum of Understanding with the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office for transportation of detainees to and from the jail and the Oklahoma County Courthouse during its Monday meeting. That MOU could be voted on in November.
Johnson, who is also a member of the jail trust as sheriff, did not attend Monday’s meeting. The jail trust has been paying the sheriff’s department for transportation services since it took over the operation of the jail.
“Without a full complement of eight trustees, I’m a little nervous about moving forward with this,” Allbaugh told fellow trust members. “This is a big item. It’s almost three-quarters of a million dollars.”
Arnall instead moved that the trust not sign any further MOUs with the sheriff for the transportation of detainees and terminate its existing MOU.
“My reading of the (trust) indenture is that the trust does not have responsibility for transportation between the jail and the courthouse,” she said. “We also don’t have responsibility for the holding facilities at the courthouse.”
Arnall said if that’s the case, it doesn’t make sense for the trust to take over something not included in the jail trust indenture.
“In my reading of the memorandum of the understanding, contrary to the indenture, we’re taking responsibility and, in fact, we’re paying for it,” she said. “I don’t understand why — when we’ve been excepted from this responsibility — we would be taking it on.”
Allbaugh said Arnall’s motion was superseded by the motion to table the MOU. Arnall told trust members that Johnson, given his position as sheriff, should not vote on the MOU if it is brought back up in November.
“I agree with the communication, but I actually think he has a conflict and should not vote on this matter,” she said.