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

Two months after the board of county commissioners formally selected a site for the facility, the location of Oklahoma County’s new jail remains a mystery that may not be solved before the end of the year.

On Oct. 2, commissioners selected a tract of land near Will Rogers World Airport offered by the City of Oklahoma City Airport Trust. The parcel was one of the final four put together by the Citizens Bond Oversight Committee.

But 60 days later, the city and county are awaiting approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, which would have to authorize the land’s use as a jail site because of its proximity to the airport. Oklahoma City Department of Airports director Jeff Mulder said in an October statement that there were hurdles to jump before the site could be used for the jail.

“The airport provided the county with two parcels for lease for the proposed project with several contingencies that would need to be addressed, such as the requirement of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) review and compliance, a review of the zoning compatibility, and the requirement for a fair market value lease rate,” Mulder said in his Oct. 3. statement. “These issues are under review and have not been resolved at this time.”

And that’s where things still stood when the Oklahoma County Board of Commissioners met Monday morning.

“There is a thought that the letter from the FAA could be forthcoming very soon, but as of now we have not heard from them, and to my knowledge the city hasn’t either,” District 2 Commissioner Brian Maughan said after the meeting Monday afternoon.

Sites under consideration

In the meantime, the county has been searching for potential new sites, according to Monday’s meeting agenda. The list includes:

  • 71 acres of land at 1901 E. Grand Blvd. and offered for sale by Willowbrook Investments LLC and Garrett & Company Resources LLC;
  • 89 acres of land at NE 10th and I-35 and offered for sale by the state of Oklahoma’s Commissioners of the Land Office and the Oklahoma City Water Trust;
  • The existing jail site at 201 N. Shartel Ave.;
  • Up to 80 acres near I-40 and I-44 in unincorporated Oklahoma County; and
  • Up to 192 acres of land between South Newcastle Road and SW 54th Street and offered for sale by the Oklahoma City Airport Trust.

Maughan said more properties will enter the mix in the coming days, as the county looks for a contingency plan in case the airport location ultimately falls through. The county’s portion of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds that commissioners have designated in support of the new jail must be spent by the end of next year. While December 2024 might seem far off, when it comes to massive construction projects like jails, every day counts.

“It’s been erroneously misreported on TV that it has to be done by the end of this year but it’s actually the end of December 2024,” Maughan said Monday afternoon. “But in good consciousness, you have to understand workforce and supply chain issues and that time it takes to build, time is still an issue here. To be clear, the money has to be spoken for by the end of 2024 and the project has to be completed by the end of 2026 unless Congress changes the deadline so if we miss that we could have to pay some of the money back, so a lot is riding on it. No one is taking anything lightly.”

Northeast OKC residents speak out

Listed among the sites currently under consideration is one on the northeast side of OKC. Earlier this year, residents of the historically Black part of the city repeatedly lobbied the Citizens Bond Oversight Board not to include a northeast OKC site among the final four. With the airport-adjacent location potentially hitting a snag, the concerns have been renewed.

OKC Ward 7 Councilwoman Nikki Nice addressed commissioners Monday and asked that the new jail site be located where the jail is now.

“I must say it’s anxiety because we have to keep coming back, and our community is stressed from having these conversations because, again, we want to be revived by the things we know our community can be repaired for as far as educational facilities, as far as being assured the prison pipeline system is not sitting right where we can see it,” Nice told commissioners.

Third-generation northeast OKC resident Kevin Maxwell also spoke Monday.

“We need things of value in Oklahoma City, not reminders of what will happen to you when something goes wrong,” Maxwell said. “We all make mistakes. We’ve all been one mistake away from being in a bad situation. We understand that we do need a new jail, a jail that serves the community for rehabilitation-type purposes. But to think that the neighborhood that I grew up in and still live in is basically being considered as a dumping ground for something no other community wants is heartbreaking.”

Concern that northeast OKC locations were back in consideration for the new jail prompted Rep. Jason Lowe (D-OKC) to releaze a statememt Monday.

“I am very concerned about the proposed county jail locations near our community’s schools, and I am monitoring the situation very closely,” Lowe said. “Many local school officials and community leaders have been vocal in their opposition to the proposed locations and their proximity to school facilities. Northeast Oklahoma City is a thriving community that needs more jobs and educational funding, not a new jail site.”

District 1 Commissioner Carrie Blumert also issued a statement reiterating her opposition to certain locations.

“As I have stated previously, I am opposed to locating the jail at any site within northeast Oklahoma City,” Blumert said. “I remain confident we can find a site that meets the needs of all stakeholders without inflicting continued harm on northeast Oklahoma City.”

Maughan, meanwhile, said Monday afternoon the site of the current jail doesn’t make sense to him.

“I think, up front, no one wants it, and I don’t care what part of the county you’re talking about, nobody wants a jail in their backyard,” Maughan said. “The prospect of building on the (current) site isn’t a good one. I believe that probably about 70 percent of the daily problems we have at the jail now are a result of it being a high rise. I’ve said that I wanted a single-story structure, and I think that makes the most sense. But to do that you need space, and the land where the jail is now doesn’t allow for that space.”

The list of four potential alternate locations could also be expanded, Maughan said. Several property owners have contacted the county offering their land for purchase, though those properties would still have to be evaluated for compatibility with site needs for the new jail.

“I think we’re looking all over the county,” Maughan said. “We are now in realtor mode. Some citizens have come forward, and I have put them in touch with staff, and those will have to go through the formal process as far as whether they fit. Just because you have empty land doesn’t necessarily mean the site works. There are issues underground with water and sewer lines and how will those be able to tie into the system. This isn’t a small restaurant or something like that, it’s a large project. So there are a lot of factors that can disqualify the site.”

Maughan said even the airport site that was selected by commissioners in October has some problems, including the presence of a flood plain on part of the property, but he said that is not a deal breaker. Disapproval by the FAA, however, would be.

Regardless, Maughan said commissioners hope to find a site by the end of the year.

“I think we’re going to try and do something before Christmas, but we’re running out of time,” he said.

(Correction: This article was updated at 7:20 p.m. Friday, Dec. 8, to correct references to quotes.)