Oklahoma County needs a jail trust

Section 904 of Title 19 of the Oklahoma state statutes allows the three commissioners of any county in the state to put an election before the voters of the county to decide to establish a jail trust. If there is any jail in the state that needs to be operated by a jail trust, it’s the Oklahoma County jail. It’s been called the “worst jail in America” because of overcrowding, problems with the facility itself, and the high number of inmate deaths. The jail is operated by the Oklahoma County Sheriff but the jail’s issues have not been sufficient to generate any substantial change in leadership from that office. The county has been dealing with the same concerns for decades. It is long past time to change the structure of how the jail is managed.

The previous Sheriff, John Whetsel, was in office for over twenty years, a prime example of the difficulties of removing an incumbent elected official. Ironically, despite the fact that J. D. Sharp, Sheriff at the time the jail was built, was not included in the planning and complained bitterly about the facility, the jail dominated the 1996 election when Sharp was ousted. Just after being reelected to a fifth term in 2016, Whetsel resigned while being investigated for financial mismanagement. Whetsel’s undersheriff for nearly 14 years, P.D. Taylor, won the GOP nomination with just 34% of the primary vote and went on to defeat two underfunded candidates in a very low turnout special election.

Taylor promised to be a change from his former boss, a claim that means he was either complicit or complacent about the many problems during his long tenure as second in command of the Whetsel regime. Unsurprisingly, the jail has continued to be a constant source of embarrassment for the state. Deaths continue and the Sheriff refuses to deliver on promises of transparency, going so far as to just walk away from reporters in the middle of interviews. Taylor’s chief of Operations, Major Jim Anderson, argues against a jail trust with the claim that taking funds out of the Sheriff’s control will harm the ability of deputies to provide adequate law enforcement for unincorporated areas of the county. This is either just a scare tactic or, worse, means that the Sheriff’s office is deliberately diverting funds intended for running the jail to other purposes. Financial mismanagement was exactly what Taylor’s former boss was being investigated for and what drove him to resign. The one area of improvement has been a reduction in the number of inmates, but not only is Taylor taking credit for something he didn’t do, it’s also become apparent that he can’t keep track of the people in his jail as they can get lost in the system for months at a time.

We are now on our fourth committee looking into what can be done about the jail. Two of the previous three recommended it be operated by a jail trust. The current group, the Oklahoma County Jail Advisory Committee, doesn’t seem to be making any headway towards a concrete plan of action(update: on April 18th they also chose to recommend a jail trust). Carrie Blumert, elected County Commissioner in November, is working to create a Citizen’s Review Board to provide some oversight for the jail. This is laudable, but will not address the ongoing management problem. Blumert and her fellow commissioners Kevin Calvey and Brian Maughan have all made it clear that they are very concerned about how the jail is operated. These three can give the voters of our county an opportunity to make a change by placing the question of a jail trust on the ballot. I hope to see that happen.

Oklahoma County Commissioners
Dist. 1 — Carrie Blumert — blumert@oklahomacounty.org — 405.713.1479
Dist. 2 — Brian Maughn — brian@oklahomacounty.org — 405.713.1502
Dist. 3 — Kevin Calvery — kevin.calvey@oklahomacounty.org — 405.713.1503