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M. Scott Carter

M. Scott Carter reports on politics, legislation and other issues from the State Capitol.

The sewage problems at the Oklahoma County’s beleaguered jail continue. In an echo of last year, sewage lines at the jail overflowed recently, flooding an unknown number of cells.

The incident mirrored a problem from 2014 in which a sewage line under the building collapsed and prevented county officials from using the kitchen for months.

Ginny Sain, left and Anna Marie Lane protest the conditions at the Oklahoma County Jail Tuesday evening. (Photo by M. Scott Carter/Oklahoma Watch)

On Tuesday a half-dozen protesters took to the sidewalk in front of the jail. They said they wanted the public to know just how bad conditions were in the facility, with one calling it “the worst jail in America.”

The protesters were family members of Ross Hoover, a 19-year-old inmate at the jail. Hoover, of Oklahoma City, was sentenced by Oklahoma County Judge Bill Graves to a six-month drug rehabilitation program in May. However, as of June 23, Hoover was still being housed in the jail.

Hoover’s aunt, Anna Myers, said she recently visited her nephew. Myers said Hoover was being held in a cell that contained black mold and raw sewage. “The animals at the shelter live in better conditions than this,” Myers said. “It’s deplorable.”

In an interview, Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel blamed inmates for the jail’s latest sewage problem. “This past week there were some inmates on I think the tenth floor who purposely stopped up the sewage lines and flooded the eight floor, which then flooded the lower floors,” Whetsel said. “That was a period of hours. Our people cleaned it up.”

However, Hoover’s father, Don, said the sewage remains a problem. “I talk to my son Tuesday evening,” he said. “The sewage is still there. My son told me he went to take a shower and there was sewage floating in the shower.”

The jail has been plagued by years of complaints and problems that led to federal scrutiny.

In 2008 the U.S. Justice Department outlined dozens of problems at the jail in a 24-page letter to Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel and Oklahoma County Commissioners Willa Johnson, Ray Vaughn and Brent Reinhart. At the time, the Justice Department wrote that the jail had an inmate capacity of 1,250 “but held 2,543” when federal officials visited the place. An official with the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Department said the inmate total for May this year was 2,356.

The Justice Department’s 2008 letter said: “Detainees sleep under tables, next to toilets and underneath bunk beds. Detainees are crowded into small cells with little outdoor or even day-room time. Some detainees have even signed requests not to have a cot because there is no room in their cells for a cot. These cramped conditions breed inadequate sanitation.”

In May, officials with the U.S. Justice Department said they are moving forward with litigation against Oklahoma County over conditions in the jail.

Whetsel, the sheriff, said many of the jail’s problems were caused by poor design of the building. Whetsel and other country official are pushing for construction of a new jail.

Built at a cost of $52 million in 1990, the jail was designed by RGDC, a once-prominent architecture and engineering firm. Six years after the jail opened, the three founders of RGDC were found guilty of professional misconduct by the state architect licensing board.

During the hearing prosecutors pointed to four RGDC projects as examples of the firm’s flawed work: the jail, the federal transfer center at Will Rogers World Airport, a records building owned by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Lake Hefner Water Treatment Plant. Shortly after the licensing board’s action, the firm closed.

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