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New Oklahoma County Jail
Some local elected officials are promoting the idea of using the existing Oklahoma County Detention Center location as the site for the new Oklahoma County Jail. (Screenshot)

Early in the public comments section of a special Oklahoma County Board of Commissioners meeting Friday, Del City Mayor Floyd Eason stepped up to the podium and said what many in the room were thinking.

The commissioners’ meeting room was packed with Del City residents after a potential new county jail site at 1901 E. Grand Blvd. was added to the agenda. None of the residents spoke in favor of the jail being put in their backyard, but Eason’s criticism focused on the very act of meeting late on a Friday afternoon, which seemed to catch many in attendance off guard.

“What are we doing here at 3 o’clock on Friday afternoon?” Eason asked commissioners. “What is this all about? What couldn’t wait until next week at the regularly scheduled time to meet? Why are you bringing us in here at 3 o’clock on Friday afternoon to talk about an item that each and every commissioner has voted down in a previous meeting? Every one of you has voted against this site at one time or another. What has changed? What is going on here?”

That 1901 E. Grand site had previously been eliminated by commissioners, but after its owner lowered the price it is being considered again. Friday’s special meeting, however, was not intended to discuss a jail site. Instead, it was intended to discuss the hiring of a land acquisition agent to assist the county in evaluating and eventually purchasing a site for the new $300 million county jail that voters approved last year.

District 3 Commissioner Myles Davidson told the crowd he had added the 1901 E. Grand item to the agenda by mistake while traveling in the days leading up to Friday’s meeting.

“The buck stops here with the error of it being on this agenda,” Davidson said. “This was not intended to look backdoor or anything of the sort. I did this from 30,000 feet on a mobile phone thinking I was actually choosing the following Wednesday agenda. This is nobody’s fault but my own. There is nothing nefarious at hand.”

While Davidson’s admission seemed to be accepted by Del City residents at the meeting, it highlighted a growing problem with site selection for the new county jail as the need to encumber federal American Rescue Plan Act funds begins to tick toward an end-of-year deadline.

Across Oklahoma County’s political and social spectra, people do not want the jail anywhere near their homes, their church or their children’s school. While commissioners’ list of potential sites seems ever-changing, none of the options appears to tick all of the necessary boxes.

To make matters worse, county leaders thought this had been resolved. After a citizen’s advisory board narrowed a list of potential sites to four last fall and commissioners eventually picked a site near the airport in October, the Federal Aviation Administration put the kibosh on that idea several months later, prompting the City of OKC to withdraw its land offer.

In many ways, the new Oklahoma County Jail is off to an inauspicious start that would be troubling on its own, but some view it as even more concerning because of the current facility’s problems that have plagued the county since it opened in 1991. Now, the trouble finding a site has some wondering if it might just be best to build where the jail stands now at 201 N. Shartel Ave. on the west side of downtown OKC.

What’s old is new again: Revisiting the current jail site

Jail Trust
Jess Eddy and other activists confront members of the Oklahoma County Jail Trust during a meeting Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. (Screenshot)

Oklahoma City criminal justice advocate Jess Eddy has been speaking out at meetings related to the Oklahoma County Jail for years. But most recently, Eddy has taken up the cause of revisiting the jail’s current site as one that might work for the future.

Members of the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority, who manage the day-to-day operations of the jail, and county commissioners have expressed a strong desire for the new jail to be only one or two stories, similar to the David L. Moss Center in Tulsa, a two-story building that sits on about 19 acres and houses up to 2,000 detainees.

“I think we need to do the current jail site,” Eddy told commissioners Friday. “It’s bewildering to me that people say it needs to be a tower. I spoke to the property owner of that large plot north of the jail. He hadn’t been approached but is willing to sell at fair market value. Doesn’t need to make a profit. When I see those kinds of things happening like people saying a tower is necessary, I am befuddled when David L. Moss is two stories and 2,000 beds on 19 acres.”

The present jail site sits on about eight acres. Eddy said about 13 acres would be required to build a two-story jail there. That means the county would be required to purchase land around the jail to create the necessary space. Eddy said he believes it’s possible to acquire up to 36 acres in that part of downtown OKC to build the jail, which would make it closer to the Oklahoma County Courthouse and more centrally located in the population center.

“I think that’s what makes the most sense,” Eddy told NonDoc. “If you look at where services are, what people need, most of it is downtown. That’s transportation, that’s services of all kinds. Most of it is there. The idea of taking it out of that area and putting it where there are little or no services just doesn’t make sense, and yet we’re talking about doing just that. And nobody wants it in their area, either, which is why it makes even more sense to just put the new jail on the current spot.”

Moreover, Eddy said the problems with jail site selection process are overshadowing a larger conversation that needs to take place. He and others have long advocated for a smaller jail when the new one is built. As proposed, the new jail is expected to house about 1,800 people.

“We need a public discussion about why it’s not happening downtown,” Eddy told commissioners Friday. “What I’ve come to understand is that people want to build a bigger jail to accommodate a growing population. That’s the actual conversation that needs to be happening. If you want to build a bigger jail, that is a reasonable statement. I disagree, but this process is subverting us from having that healthy conversation.”

The county is expected to sell the eight-acre site of the current jail after it is demolished and cleared. Eddy believes other forces are at work in preventing the downtown site from being fully considered.

“It’s been communicated to me clearly that [a prominent]┬ádeveloper, is the big rich developer in this community who has told everybody behind the scenes, ‘Hell no I want to develop that area,'” Eddy said during Friday’s meeting. “So that’s why the current site hasn’t been vetted or looked at because that is the powerful developer.”

District 2 Commissioner Brian Maughan said he hasn’t been warned off the current site by developers.

“I have not received any pressure from anybody about doing it, it’s about my own resolve to not go back to a tower,” Maughan told reporters after Friday’s meeting.

Hamon: ‘Yes, build it in my backyard’

JoBeth Hamon
Councilwoman JoBeth Hamon speaks during a Ward 6 OKC City Council debate Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. (Michael Duncan)

While the City of Oklahoma City isn’t directly involved in the jail project beyond zoning issues, some members of the City Council have been paying close attention to the process.

Ward 6 Councilwoman JoBeth Hamon is one. The current jail sits in her ward and, while others around the metro don’t want the new jail, she would welcome it.

“I would very much like to see it at the current site, or adjacent properties,” Hamon told NonDoc. “From what I can tell by following it and talking to some of the commissioners is I haven’t gotten the sense that the current site has ever gotten a really good first look. It’s felt like there has been this desire to look at other sites because of presumptions about the current site. I’ve never seen any kind of analysis that says here is a matrix showing the same information about all of these sites given their plusses and minuses.”

Hamon said sites like the previously selected location near Will Rogers World Airport or the one at 1901 E. Grand Blvd. still being considered create problems by being located too far from public resources like the courthouse or the city bus station.

“That’s been my concern is that these other sites mentioned have been out in no-man’s land,” she said. “There doesn’t seem like there’s access to ways to get back into the community. If you’re being asked to come to a diversionary program or you need to use other services, how do you do that once you’re let out of jail miles from those services? It’s for that reason that I think the current site should be looked at. I’ve been the one person saying, ‘Yes, build it in my backyard.’ But when I hear those arguments from people who don’t want it, I understand it to a certain degree. Any new development, whether it’s a jail or a mall, will change the dynamics of a neighborhood. So for that reason and many others, I think the current site should be studied more, and if it won’t work, the reasons why need to be documented.”

Hamon, along with Ward 2 Councilman James Cooper, Ward 7 Councilwoman Nikki Nice, Rep. Jason Lowe (D-OKC), Rep. Forrest Bennett (D-OKC) and Del City Ward 3 Councilwoman Claudia Browne, are set to host a discussion about the new jail site at 6 p.m. Monday at Metro Tech, 1900 Springlake Drive.

Maughan: ‘I know it’s been confusing to the public’

Brian Maughan
Incumbent Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan speaks during a debate hosted by NonDoc on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. (Pablo Angulo)

Maughan said the process of finding the site for the new jail has been bumpy, but he believes the county is still taking the best approach.

Still, he said, there is a sense of urgency at play. ARPA funds the county received from the federal government in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic must be encumbered or spent by the end of this year.

“We really are trying to work with absolute due diligence to make sure we get this right, and we need all of the options on the table in order to do that,” Maughan said. “I know it’s been confusing to the public. They’re on. They’re off. But sometimes new information becomes available. We’re trying to drill on these sites and see what the structure and the environment looks like.”

Beyond the ARPA deadline, county officials have other motivation to construct the new jail as quickly as possible. This week, agendas for both the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority and the Oklahoma County Budget Board featured executive session discussion items related to “a pending investigation, claim or action by the United States Department of Justice regarding conditions at the Oklahoma County Detention Center.”

Maughan admitted that wherever the new jail site is located, it likely won’t please everyone or be a “perfect” spot.

“We’re trying to see what the neighboring concerns might be and if any of them can be addressed,” he said. “It’s a huge matrix of trying to make this Rubik’s Cube work as best we can. It will probably be an imperfect decision whatever results from this, but we are going to do the best we can.”

One option Maughan does not want to consider is building the new jail at the current site. He said he believes those advocating for its use are oversimplifying what would be needed to make that work.

“I have always been a ‘No’ on that for the reasons of I don’t want to go back to a tower,” Maughan said. “You would not realistically be able to build out around the existing facility and have enough adequate land to build a one-level jail. Even if you explored a second story, it likely wouldn’t be enough. [Jess Eddy] made a very valid point about some things he was comparing it to, but I don’t think he understands some of the nuances and was pretty much oversimplifying the situation, with all due respect. It’s just not that simple. We need enough space to have future growth, not just what we house now. We need this facility to last for, I hope, another 30 to 50 years, and you have to plan for that.”

Maughan is also opposed to using eminent domain to acquire properties around the current jail, and he has also opposed Davidson’s proposal for a site near Stockyards City for the same reason.

“I am against eminent domain for any reason,” he said. “Stockyards. Downtown. Out in the wilderness. I don’t care. We have willing property owners who are willing to sell, and until that is no longer the case I’m not going to vote for eminent domain.”

While she is not as solidly opposed to rebuilding on the current site as Maughan, District 1 Commissioner Carrie Blumert shares some of Maughan’s concerns about using the current jail site.

“The biggest issue is it’s hard to get enough land to get a one- or two-story facility,” Blumert said of the current location. “It would be really hard to acquire enough land in our timeframe to be able to use the money that we have and keep with that one to two stories.”

While the end of the year might seem like a long time away, when it comes to massive projects like building a jail, that time will pass quickly. Maughan said the time element means commissioners need to be focusing on the most viable sites possible.

“I think that we wouldn’t want to pursue a site this close to an ARPA deadline that didn’t have the environmental or the engineering (studies completed),” he said.

But Blumert stopped short of completely snuffing out the idea of using the current site, or somewhere close to it.

“I wouldn’t say that the current site is completely off the table, but there are some major issues that we would have to overcome if we decided to do that,” she said.

View an overview of land options around the current jail site

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