As COVID-19 outbreaks emerged throughout Oklahoma’s prison system in September 2020, the Hughes County Jail opted not to give masks to detainees.

Inside the Bryan County Jail, inspected on March 10, 2020, a state health department employee found roaches near a floor drain in the kitchen and gnats in living and common areas.

At the Haskell County Jail in eastern Oklahoma, an inspector discovered buckets of stagnant water under a kitchen sink and three non-functioning cell toilets.

More than four dozen Oklahoma jails were cited for health and safety violations in 2020, jail inspection reports obtained through an open records request show.

Oklahoma requires city and county jails to comply with dozens of health and safety standards, such as providing detainees with a minimum amount of living space, ensuring access to hot showers and maintaining a working fire alarm system. The Oklahoma State Department of Health enforces these standards through annual unannounced inspections.

Of the 122 county and city jails inspected from January through December 2020, 51 were not in compliance. The most common violations were:

  • Faulty fire detection or smoke alarm systems: 38 facilities cited.
  • Standard of living issues, including failing to provide detainees with adequate living space and failing to use a dietitian-approved menu: 23 facilities cited.
  • Safety issues, including failing to conduct hourly sight checks: 16 facilities cited.
  • Unsanitary conditions, including the build of dirt and debris and insect infestations: 11 facilities cited.
  • Security issues, such as staff failing to conduct regular counts of detainees or damaged infrastructure: 10 facilities cited.

Jail administrators have 60 days to correct deficiencies identified during the inspection. If issues persist beyond the grace period, the state health department may file a complaint with the Attorney General’s office or local district attorney, though such action is rare.

The health department declined to make a jail inspection employee available for an interview. In a statement, an agency spokesperson said the jail inspection division places an emphasis on quality-of-life violations and is adequately staffed to carry out annual inspections and follow up on complaints. Three years ago, The Frontier reported that staffing shortages were making it difficult for the jail inspection division to carry out its mission.

Poor conditions and deaths in Oklahoma’s jails, particularly at the Oklahoma County Detention Center, have drawn elevated attention and scrutiny in recent years. At least 21 people died in Oklahoma pretrial detention facilities in 2020, according to information compiled by The Frontier. Oklahoma had the nation’s second-highest jail mortality rate from 2009 through 2019, a Reuters investigation found.

Rural jails, which comprise more than two-thirds of Oklahoma’s local detention facilities, often struggle to finance repairs and hire qualified workers. Additionally, many rural courts have been reluctant or unable to implement certain criminal justice reforms, causing their populations to swell considerably compared to urban lockups.

“Given that the distribution of scarce state and county resources is likely uneven—favoring those areas with more people—access to critical criminal justice and community services may be spread thin the further away a place is from the various population clusters in a state or county,” researchers from the Vera Institute wrote in a 2017 report on jail growth. “This means there may be fewer judges to quickly hear cases, less robust pretrial services, and fewer diversion programs available to decrease jail use.”

Last September lawmakers held an interim study to examine solutions to poor prison and jail conditions. A bipartisan group of lawmakers in attendance agreed that the state could do more to assist county-level governments.

State Rep. Justin Humphrey and Sen. Zach Taylor, R-Seminole, are sponsoring legislation that would require the state to comply with the terms of State Question 781 and allocate funds saved from incarcerating fewer people in recent years to county-level substance abuse and mental health treatment programs. The bill unanimously cleared the House last week and is eligible to be heard in the Senate.

Epic Text Books is posting each inspection report in a searchable database. We have requested jail inspection reports from January through December 2021 and plan on updating our chart when the information is made available.

Keaton Ross covers democracy and criminal justice for Epic Text Books. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss.

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