OKLAHOMA CITY (OKC Free Press) — After nearly two years of meetings, the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority, known colloquially as the Jail Trust, has formed a subcommittee to research and discuss specific ideas for jail improvements.
The Detention Center Action Committee (DCAC) is made up of three members of the Jail Trust.
The Chair is Francie Ekwerekwu, who is joined by Vice-Chair Sue Ann Arnall and Senator Ben Brown. The committee will meet monthly to discuss updates and find solutions that they will then recommend to the larger Trust. Any suggestion the committee makes will have to receive five votes of the Trustees to be put into action as policy.
The DCAC has met twice so far, first on February 24 and more recently on Monday. Monday’s meeting served mostly as a review of the previous meeting, where technical difficulties caused audio problems for Trustees joining virtually.
The key foci of the committee so far are the operational review of the first 6 months of the Trust’s control of the Jail, reducing the jail population, direct supervision of detainees, classification of detainees, and a proposed Jail Annex.
Greg Williams, CEO of the Trust met with the committee to go over his formal 180-day review, which had been submitted electronically to each member of the Trust.
Williams repeated that staffing at the Jail is his greatest concern and top priority. In an effort to address that, the Jail has increased pay for correction officers by 10% across the board, making the wages at the Jail competitive. Williams claims that this will help with both recruitment and retention of staff.
An issue with increasing staff quickly has been the training process for new employees. Traditionally, new hires must go through a training academy for several weeks before they ever set foot in the Jail.
Williams has implemented a new policy wherein new staff spend 42 hours of on-the-job training overseen by a mentor. This allows them to be on the payroll immediately, before attending the academy. It also serves to weed out candidates who aren’t a good fit for the job.
The mentors have been hand chosen among the elite members of Jail staff, according to Williams.
A focus of training for the new leadership at the Jail has been to change the philosophy and culture of the staff.
Williams emphasizes a shift from a law-enforcement environment to a custodial environment. New employees are trained to see their job of taking care of people who are confined to the jail. The ultimate goal is humane and safe treatment of detainees and staff.
According to Williams, everybody’s safety is the top priority. Williams says that existing staff and new staff have been quick to embrace this change.
Williams told the committee that as COVID numbers decline, the Jail is slowly and steadily reintroducing programming for detainees. He said that schooling for juveniles detained in the Jail has not stopped, adding that recently an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting was held with nearly twenty attendees.
Discussions about reducing the jail population were held at both meetings of the committee. Brown related a recent New York Times article about the legislature of the state of Illinois recently eliminating cash bail.
While all members of the committee are interested in further research about that potential, they also noted that the Jail Trust can’t unilaterally make that decision, as it is a legislative matter.
Arnall pointed out that they are now under a judicial order to no longer “stack bonds.” Stacked bonds happen when a person is detained for multiple small amounts, each with a separate bond amount, creating an inordinately high fee for release from jail.
Reducing the number of bonds a detainee is subject to can greatly reduce the number of unsentenced people who are stuck in jail simply because they can’t afford to pay.
Arnall asked Williams about the possibility of releasing people from the courthouse when they are adjudicated as free to go. Currently, that person must return to the Jail and wait for varying amounts of time to be formally released from detention.
Williams said that it would require having staff and some equipment at the jail center at the top of the courthouse, but that he would be willing to look into the possibility. Arnall claimed that not only would it help reduce the daily number of people in the Jail, but it would also save a great deal of money in transport costs.
One issue that inflates the population count at the Jail every day is that some people have been sentenced and are sitting in the Jail awaiting transfer to the Department of Corrections (DOC). At the height of COVID infection numbers, DOC stopped receiving transfers from the Jail, causing the number of those waiting to rise dramatically. Since then, the number has decreased sharply, though there are still many waiting.
At publication time of this report, the official count of detainees was 1755, 97 of whom are awaiting transfer to DOC custody.
Worth noting is that the DOC does not come to the Jail to retrieve those detainees, but rather the Jail is responsible for delivering people who have been sentenced to prison to the DOC, which requires staff time.
A need for the Jail is to have direct supervision of detainees, meaning that corrections officers would have eyes on detainees much of the time. Current staffing levels make that impossible. The lack of staff has been blamed by many in the community for several of the recent deaths at the Jail, including the beating death of a detainee by his cellmate
Arnall referenced Tulsa County Jail’s direct supervision model, which has been celebrated by many members of the Trust and the Criminal Justice Advisory Council (CJAC).
However, as Williams pointed out, the Jail in Tulsa is a vastly different kind of building. The construction of the Oklahoma County Jail as a tower makes direct supervision difficult even with adequate staffing levels.
Classification of detainees will remain a focus of this committee and of the Jail administration in the months ahead. Determining which detainees are to be considered maximum, medium or minimum security risks can aid in deciding where detainees are celled, what privileges they may be afforded, and the amount of supervision they require.
The Jail implemented a new detainee tracking system that should enable staff to better manage classification.
Williams has invited the National Institute of Corrections to assess the Jail. They may be able to suggest a classification system that is “validated.” Having an unvalidated classification system in the jail can lead to major liability issues if a detainee or staff member is injured.
Ekwerekwu stated that, “Classification systems save lives.”
Jail annex idea
Arnall detailed some of her thoughts about a proposed “Jail Annex” to her fellow committee members.
The annex would have 600 cells for regular, non-maximum security detainees, as well as cells for detainees experiencing mental health issues. The medical facility would be on the first floor so that new detainees could be screened at intake. Ideally, according to Arnall, social workers and mental health professionals would also be available.
Arnall said that this would not be an effort to expand capacity for jailing residents of our city and county, but would rather be for the more humane detention of people accused of a crime. The existing tower would be reserved for maximum security detainees. Arnall said that the plan would include closing down several floors of the tower.
According to Arnall, there is now a subcommittee of CJAC to foster the proposal. That subcommittee and CJAC will be handling the problem of funding such a project.
The annex idea has been endorsed by several trustees, as well as many in the activist community such as Adriana Laws and Sara Bana.
Ekwerekwu pointed out that the Trust doesn’t have the legal standing to change cash bond or who is brought to jail. The first is a legislative issue, and the second is up to the county and various municipalities that store their arrestees at the facility.
Arnall’s involvement with CJAC, however, and CJAC’s endorsement and fostering of the Jail Trust suggests that members of both the Trust and CJAC hold a lot of political clout in this city, county, and state. Those with the clout could spend some of their influence on lobbying for legislative changes at a state level, and policy reforms at a local level.
The Detention Center Action Committee meets on the first Monday of every month at 1:00 p.m. This is a public meeting.
Last Updated March 3, 2021, 4:30 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor