Oklahoma County Del City
The property located at 1901 E. Grand Boulevard in southeast Oklahoma City is being considered as a location for the new Oklahoma County Jail. (Screenshot)

Site selection for the new Oklahoma County Jail continues to be a source of frustration, with Del City leaders threatening to sue the county if a property at 1901 E. Grand Blvd. is chosen as the location.

Meanwhile, as members of the northeast Oklahoma City community plan a morning march to Wednesday’s Board of County Commissioners meeting, a bill in the Oklahoma Legislature has added another layer of acrimony when it comes to finding a home for the long-awaited facility.

All of this comes at a time when the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority — a public trust tasked with managing operations of the current jail — is losing its longest-serving member over her frustrations about trying improve the jail’s financial picture.

Del City threatens to sue Oklahoma County

grand jury report on the Oklahoma County Jail
Benches with handcuffs sit in corners and other high-traffic areas of hallways in the Oklahoma County Jail. (Tres Savage)

Del City residents and city officials have been regular attendees at Oklahoma County Board of Commissioners meetings for weeks now, fighting a proposed new jail site at 1901 E. Grand Blvd. In its latest move, the city has threatened to sue the county if the jail site is located there.

Michael Dean, who holds Del City’s Ward 1 City Council seat, said the resolution passed by council members at their last meeting is about being prepared to act.

“We are going to commit to having funds available to go ahead and get the law firm selected, chosen and be ready to file cases whenever it’s appropriate for the new jail site,” Dean told NonDoc.

About $150,000 has been allocated for a potential lawsuit, Dean said.

“That’s just to get it started,” he said.

Del City at a glance

With about 22,000 residents, Del City was incorporated in 1948. Its boundaries run from South Bryant Avenue to the east and South Sooner Road to the west. It’s northern boundary is Northeast 10th Street, and its southern boundary is Southeast 44th Street.

One concern Dean and other residents have involves the potential for detainees to be released into Del City without transportation or other available resources, a similar criticism voiced by advocates who want to see the current downtown jail location chosen for the new building.

The potential site on Grand Boulevard sits just across Bryant Avenue from Del City’s western boundary, and several housing developments and schools are nearby. Both the superintendents for Crooked Oak Schools and Mid-Del Schools have publicly advocated against the potential site.

“All of the people who they release at any time of the day or night are going to end up in our neighborhoods,” Dean said.

Dean said Del City’s previously open dialogue with county officials has changed since the City Council began exploring the option of a lawsuit to stop the jail’s potential construction at the Grand Boulevard location.

“They have cut off communications to the City of Del City,” Dean said. “They have said we’re no longer going to talk to the City of Del City even though there is no lawsuit filed. They have said well, you know, there might be pending litigation, so we’re not going to talk to them. I don’t understand how a county could be doing that to a city they serve.”

Dean said building the jail in the area would likely knock down existing property values, an issue affecting nearly every potential location.

“That’s the beautiful thing about Del City is that we all love and care for our neighbors,” Dean said. “And every one of us wants to fight for our community that we love so much. Many of us have chosen to stay or move here, and there are many who don’t have the ability to leave or don’t want to leave friends behind. What’s happened here is that this jail is an assault that is going to potentially ruin the city, and we know this.”

District 2 County Commissioner Brian Maughan said Del City’s actions threatening litigation do not serve anyone.

“The tragedy is that taxpayers are suing taxpayers, and the only guarantee is that taxpayers are going to lose,” Maughan said.

Legislation added to mix, floor leader says it must change

From left to right: Rep. Josh Cantrell (R-Kingston) speaks with Rep. Collin Duel (R-Guthrie) on the Oklahoma House of Representatives floor Tuesday, April 25, 2024. (Michael Duncan)

Introduced this session, House Bill 3758 by Rep. Josh Cantrell (R-Kingston) would increase from 1,000 feet to 2,000 feet the distance required between a county or municipal correctional facility and any school. It would also specify that the distance be measured from property line to property line.

HB 3758 advanced from the House County and Municipal Government Committee 8-0 on Feb. 13. In its current form, it could prohibit Oklahoma County’s new jail from being built on the current site, an option that some have advocated.

Rep. Andy Fugate represents Del City in the Legislature and said he has requested that some of the language be changed in Cantrell’s bill.

“I’ve had people ask me about the motivation for the bill,” said Fugate (D-Del City). “I don’t know what caused him to run the bill, but I did request two amendments from House staff that would [exempt] where the jail is already built for the purposes of rebuilding it there if that is what the county decides to do.”

Cantrell told NonDoc on Monday that he authored the bill to clarify where jails can be built.

“The issue is the [existing law] didn’t have any definitions on where we measure,” Cantrell said. “It said 1,000 feet but didn’t say from where. It didn’t say from building to building, or doorstep to doorstep or property line to property line, so we added in some of the language from other bills in regards to other jails that say property line to property line so we could measure in the future when we build jails we don’t encroach.”

Despite rumors that the bill is “dead,” Cantrell said he still intends on moving it forward.

“If it’s dead that means someone in leadership killed it, and I don’t know yet,” Cantrell said. “As far as I know it’s not (dead).”

However, House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols (R-OKC) confirmed he told Rep. Jason Lowe (D-OKC) that Cantrell’s bill is “dead.”

“I have concerns on anything that would limit the commissioners’ ability as to where they put the new Oklahoma County Jail,” Echols said. “I’ll obviously always work with the representative on what we could do, but in its current form it will not become law.”

Echols is president of Turn Key Health, which contracts with Oklahoma County to provide medical services to the jail. However, he said he has no preference on where the new facility is located.

“I don’t have a preference, I just know that we need a new jail,” Echols said.

Cantrell said he often interacts with county commissioners around the state because he serves on the House County and Municipal Government Committee. He is also a former Marshall County commissioner.

“It was brought to my attention that’s what the language said, and I thought that language needed correcting,” Cantrell said. “It was also in a news article from Oklahoma Voice where one of the commissioners in Oklahoma County said that they would support legislation that would expand the distance between jails. I can’t remember what her name was off the top of my head.”

In that October article, Oklahoma County District 1 Commissioner Carrie Blumert was quoted as saying she would support changing the jail-school buffer distance from 1,000 feet to 2,000 feet.

“I think all three of the county commissioners have been in pretty solid agreement that we don’t want to build the jail near schools,” Blumert said in October.

Cantrell said he has no interest in where Oklahoma County builds its jail.

“I just don’t want them building it next to a school,” he said.

Fugate said the jail site selection has been stressful for Del City residents, as well as other areas that have been mentioned as possible homes for the new facility.

“It’s an absolute mess, plain and simple,” Fugate said of the site selection. “I wish I had an easy answer for it. I hear a lot of fear about using eminent domain from the commissioners because they don’t want to take away property, but what they’re doing is even more pernicious. There are a thousand rooftops across the way from this potential site, and there are people who have lived there for decades who have managed to build up a small nest egg with their homes. So if it is built there, you are going to have a lot of folks who will lose some of that nest egg.”

Sue Ann Arnall steps down from jail trust

Oklahoma County
Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority member Sue Ann Arnall speaks to the Oklahoma County Budget Board on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. (Screenshot)

Amid the ongoing saga of the new jail’s ultimate location, longtime Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority member Sue Ann Arnall stepped down from her post Monday. Arnall had been the lone remaining original member of the trust, which was established in 2019 before taking over day-to-day jail operations from the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office in 2020.

Arnall has been an outspoken proponent of improving detainee treatment during her time on the trust, specifically on the issue of getting people out of their cells as much as possible and making sure incoming detainees have access to possible diversion programs.

But while some of those efforts met with success, Arnall wrote in her resignation letter that working with the limited funding available for the jail’s operation became too big of an obstacle. Unlike most other counties, Oklahoma County does not dedicate sales tax revenue to its jail operations, and other county financial decisions have frustrated Arnall.

Sue Ann Arnall

“I am proud of the hard-fought progress we have made, but there is still much left to do,” Arnall wrote in her resignation letter, a copy of which was obtained by NonDoc. “Attaining the operations and staffing goals at the Oklahoma County Detention Center is not possible without adequate funding from Oklahoma County. Unfortunately, at this point, we have hit a critical impasse.”

The jail’s funding is determined by the Oklahoma County Budget Board, which sets budgets for county departments. Arnall said the board has not allocated enough funding for the jail to operate properly.

“For years now, I have asked the County Budget Board to allocate enough funds to the jail for it to operate at an adequate level,” she wrote. “Several county officials have pointed to a lack of funds across the board as a reason for not adequately funding the jail, but I contend that they need to prioritize their funding, looking to the county’s primary responsibilities and liabilities first. Oklahoma County is responsible for the lives of every detainee at [the jail], and they represent some of our most vulnerable community members. Many are experiencing homelessness, mental health crises, or suffering from substance use.”

Arnall also cited staffing problems within the facility. The jail’s number of staff has been consistently fewer than 300 employees, although there have been efforts to increase those numbers in recent years through job fairs and other recruiting methods.  

“The county has placed this responsibility in the hands of the jail trust, but the jail is currently operating with only half of the minimum number of staff recommended by the National Institute for Corrections,” Arnall wrote. “Additionally, the starting salary for a detention officer is approximately less than 75 percent of the starting pay for county law enforcement officers with the same qualifications. It is simply impossible to hire the necessary number of detention officers at the current starting salary and the funds approved and allocated to the jail by the Oklahoma County Budget Board.”

Arnall had pushed for a remodel of the jail’s booking area during her time on the trust. The area’s design has created safety problems in the past.

“For over two years, I have also pleaded, with no success, for $1.5 million to remodel the booking area for the jail,” she wrote. “The configuration of the current area creates an unsafe environment and is extremely inefficient. With approximately 70 people per day being booked into OCDC, along with at least 70 accompanying law enforcement officers, this high-traffic area should be remodeled to allow individuals to move more quickly through the book-in process and ensure the safety of employees and detainees alike. Even though there are plans to build a new jail, we are at least five years away from completion of the new facility. Every passing year we have multiple safety-related issues arising out of the current booking area layout.”

Arnall questioned a recent county decision to remodel the building housing the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office.

“Instead of providing the $1.5 million for the jail remodel, the County Budget Board has deemed a $17.5 million remodel of the sheriff’s offices more important,” she wrote. “The reason stated was that the sheriff wanted a lobby that was more user-friendly for the public. I seriously doubt that these offices have anywhere close to the same traffic as the jail booking area, let alone the safety issues.”

Maughan said Arnall served the trust well during her time on the nine-member board.

“We were so fortunate to have had her for as long as we did,” Maughan said Monday afternoon. “She was a terrific asset to the trust and saw us through some of the most trying times.”

In a joint statement released late Monday afternoon, Arnall’s fellow trust members praised her efforts.

Ms. Sue Ann Arnall was one of the founding members of the Criminal Justice Authority. Her insight and dedication to improving the lives of employees and detainees will be deeply missed,” the statement read. “With her support, changes have and continue to be made at the detention center. Remodeling is underway in the booking area, but more is needed. All members of the trust appreciate her effort and in her an absence will continue to work to toward her and the authority’s goals.”

Read Sue Ann Arnall’s resignation letter

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(Editor’s note: The Arnall Family Foundation provides grant support to the Sustainable Journalism Foundation.)