Rise in OK County jail deaths yet another reason for significant justice reform

A task force that's working on ways to reform the criminal justice system in Oklahoma County has another compelling reason to come up with meaningful proposals: too many inmates are dying while in custody at the county jail.

The Oklahoman's Nolan Clay outlined the troubling trend in a recent story. Thus far in 2016, nine inmates (seven males, two females) have died in custody. That's five more than the total for all of 2015, and three more than the total for 2014. The jail's death rate for this year is double that of the state Department of Corrections.

Five of the deaths this year have been blamed on natural causes. The remainder are considered suicides. As Clay noted, a common complaint after a natural death is that jail staff didn't pay close enough attention to the inmate's medical problems. After a suicide, a common complaint is that jailers didn't check on the inmate often enough.

As of the end of June, 684 active suicide attempts had been made by 94 inmates, Sheriff John Whetsel said. Inmates also had threatened suicide or made suicidal statements nearly 9,400 times. That's a lot for jailers to handle.

So too is the sheer volume of traffic at the jail. Whetsel noted that almost 50,000 people are booked into the jail each year — that's an average of 137 people every day, in a building that was constructed to house 1,200 inmates but has been retrofitted to try to hold as many as 2,400. We say “try,” because placing three people in a cell, despite it being a violation of state standards, occurs all too often.

When you place more people in a building than it should hold, and many of those people arrive with significant health and mental health problems, and you have a difficult time adequately staffing the building with jailers, then you have a recipe for potential
problems.

Those same factors were in play in recent years, when the death rate was much lower. Thus, it's apt to ask whether Whetsel and his staff are doing a poor job managing the population or whether they've simply had a run of extraordinarily bad luck.

Whetsel has added a nurse in the jail's receiving area Thursday through Sunday to ensure all new inmates get a thorough medical exam. He and his staff also are reviewing all their medical and mental health processes with the company that provides the jail's medical care. Company staff met with jailers, patients and medical staff last week.

State Rep. Mike Christian, who is running for Whetsel's job, cites the large number of deaths in the jail this year as another reason why Whetsel should be voted out in November after 20 years on the job. “Enough is enough. … And we're really not getting any good answers on why it's happening,” Christian said.

The voters will have their say in a few months. Certainly the spike in jail deaths this year is cause for real concern. But so too is the continued high volume of traffic. As one inmate wrote recently in papers filed in federal court, the crowded conditions “make higher risk of … infection … injury, fights, stress, complications on making it to court.”

This must be addressed in a significant way if real improvement is to be seen in conditions and oversight.

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