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This community opinion piece is by Nick Singer, program director at Oklahoma Progress Now. He has been a candidate for office and worked as an organizer, activist, consultant, lobbyist and volunteer for a range of progressive causes. He is based in OKC.

OPINION – (Free Press) – The Oklahoma County Jail has been a disaster and stain on our community. The powers that often control these decisions finally seem ready to make their move to fix it. In recent weeks, it has been announced that we need to build a new jail and the proposal is for an 1,800 person, $300M brand new facility somewhere outside of downtown (within 10 miles).

The argument rests on some fairly simple, if incredibly faulty, logic that our jail is overcrowded, our population is growing and thus we need a jail that is at least 50% larger than the one we have now, which was built to hold around 1,200 people. Before we continue, you must know, this jail debacle has been going on for a long, long time and things sound eerily familiar.

Nick Singer
Nick Singer with Oklahoma Progress Now. (provided)

In this article from 2015, the County was studying building a new jail at a cost of nearly $300M and building it within 10 miles of downtown as far back as 2002, a mere 11 YEARS after the current building opened! Here we are, just 30 years after the jail was built, 20 years after the last proposal and we’re discussing essentially the same idea to build a brand new, significantly larger, $300M jail outside of downtown and away from the courts and other infrastructure!

In the last 30 years, Oklahoma’s jail population has exploded and only modestly come down from late 2000, early 2010 highs. Oklahoma is the 2nd highest incarcerator on the planet. To put it in context, we lock up more than double the number of people per capita as North Carolina, North Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska or New Mexico. We lock up four times as many people as Massachusetts, Maine or Rhode Island. We incarcerate ten times as many as northern Europe.

This proposal doubles down on 30 years of failed policy around mass incarceration. This is especially maddening as groups like the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council (CJAC) recently released a dashboard of statistics, after years of bringing groups like the Vera Institute for Justice and OK Policy Institute in to give us an idea of who is in there and what we should do about it. What have they found? 

Our jail is filled to capacity with people who have no business being there. More than 85% of people being held there are awaiting trial, they haven’t been convicted of anything. This often means they simply lack the money to post bail and await trial at home. Many are people suffering from mental illness, poverty or addiction that makes navigating our system difficult and their cases hard to resolve without incarceration due to lack of options or resources. Even though, anyone who is even casually familiar with these issues, knows a jail is the last place you should put these folks.  

CJAC’s own dashboard suggests we can do much more! After a dip five years ago, our jail population has been quite flat hovering near 1800 people in recent years. While that might support the argument for building a larger county jail, we continue to leave many safer, more humane and less expensive options on the table.

What have we done to reform or end our debtors’ prison of cash bail? How can we expedite the court process and get people through more quickly? How can we divert the stream of people heading into that building that we know do not belong there? Why not build smaller, cheaper alternative facilities, like a new in-take, special courts, mental health space or places for people suffering addiction instead of building one giant incarceration facility years from now? 

Voters are making a big investment in social services using MAPS 4 but that is a pay as you go, years out, solution that still lacks the operations money to provide many services. Additionally, this jail proposal costs double what all the great things seeking to address these issues in MAPS 4 cost. This jail proposal feels like our resource priorities, between what the voters want and what we are being offered, are terribly misaligned. 

It is the definition of insanity, doing the same thing and expecting different results, to propose the same solution to a decades long problem. We don’t need a giant new jail. You could let half the people out of the one we have now and we’d look like Nebraska. If we really invested in solutions that work, maybe we could go even lower and look like freedom loving Maine. We could spend far less money on a far smaller jail facility and leave us with resources for other options that are not a jail and actually increase public safety. 

Cruel jails, mass incarceration and brutal punishment do not make us safer. Doubling down on the failed policies of the past and paying for it with decades long property tax bonds or ARPA emergency relief money commits us to these failures for another generation and doesn’t allow us to invest in solutions that address root problems. Voters can still reject this proposal.

Now is the time to think big, to reimagine our horribly broken carceral system. It is time to invest in communities, resources and supports that help people get their lives back together. We can find ways to address the challenges in our community that don’t focus on detention and punishment. We have the resources, we just have to be willing to use them.

Last Updated December 9, 2021, 9:00 AM by Brett Dickerson – Editor