Deaths in Oklahoma’s largest county jails have trended upward over the past decade, an indication that some inmates aren’t receiving adequate medical and mental health care.
According to a Reuters News investigation published last October, 148 inmates housed in Oklahoma’s 11 largest county jails died from 2009 through 2019. The jails combined had an average annual mortality rate of 2.16 deaths per 1,000 inmates, the second highest in the nation behind West Virginia.
The Oklahoma County Detention Center reported an especially high number of inmate deaths. From 2016 through 2019, the jail had 40 deaths and an average annual mortality rate of 4.77 deaths per 1,000 inmates. The national average is 1.46 deaths per 1,000 inmates.
The jail’s poor design makes it difficult for staff to see through every cell door and ensure the safety of inmates. Oklahoma County officials have tried for years to secure funding to build a new jail, with no success.
Six inmates at the jail have died over the past seven weeks.
About half of Oklahoma’s jail deaths were caused by illness and another quarter by suicide. The remainder were caused by homicide, accident or substance abuse.
Local jails report inmate deaths to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics annually. However, the agency has repeatedly declined requests to make facility-level data available to the public.
By submitting more than 1,500 open records requests to local jails and government agencies, Reuters gained access to inmate death data from 523 jails in 44 states. Six states — Delaware, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Alaska, Hawaii, and Vermont — were excluded from the investigation because their state corrections department oversees pretrial detention facilities.
Reducing Jail Mortality
Changing demographics are making it more difficult for corrections administrators to provide high-quality health care.
Jail and prison populations across the U.S. are aging, and a disproportionate number of inmates suffer from chronic medical conditions and mental illness. However, experts say a majority of inmate deaths are predictable and preventable.
In a 2017 report sponsored by the Priority Criminal Justice Needs Initiative, a panel of corrections administrators, researchers and health care professionals outlined policies that can help reduce inmate deaths from illness and suicide.
According to the panel, slow response time is the greatest contributor to inmate deaths from illness. They said jail and prison administrators should collect data on how quickly their officers respond to health emergencies and identify ways to increase response time.
Multiple Oklahoma inmates have died because staff failed to provide medical assistance in a timely manner.
On Oct. 22, 2015, 26-year-old Terral Ellis, Jr. died of sepsis and pneumonia after staff at the Ottawa County Jail mocked him and ignored his pleas for medical attention for several hours. Last January, jail officials released video footage of Ellis begging for help. Ellis was booked into the jail after failing to appear in court on a DUI charge.
Joshua England, a 21-year-old inmate at the Joseph Harp Correctional Center, died of appendicitis in May 2018 after his five written requests for medical attention were ignored. His family sued the Oklahoma Department of Corrections a year later, claiming that prison staff failed to prevent his death. England, who had been convicted of fourth-degree arson, had about three months remaining on his sentence.
State oversight of local jails is minimal. While the Oklahoma State Department of Health jail services division has the authority to investigate inmate deaths and issue misconduct reports, the agency cannot issue fines or impose sanctions on facilities that fail to provide adequate care.
To combat suicides, the panel concluded that jails need to hire more mental health professionals and expand video technology. The panel’s report also says staff should check on inmates if they have experienced a major life event, like being convicted of serious crime or losing a family member.
Most Oklahoma jails lack the funding and resources necessary to implement these kinds of changes.
Last year The Frontier reported that many rural jails are far from treatment facilities, and have not received any funds from State Question 781, an approved 2016 ballot initiative which promised to allocate money saved from reduced prison costs to community mental health and substance abuse programs. State Question 781 would not have passed without State Question 780, which reduced many drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.
The state’s urban jails have also struggled to care for inmates with mental illness.
On Jan. 8, 2019, Krysten Gonzales, 29, hanged herself inside an Oklahoma County Jail cell. The U.S. Army veteran had disclosed her post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression to jail staff, but was not being held in a mental health ward of the jail. For three months prior to her death, public defenders say they had tried to find an outpatient mental health facility that would accept Gonzales. She was in the jail after failing to appear in court on a drug possession charge.
Jacob Beaumont, director of advocacy and criminal justice reform at Mental Health Association Oklahoma, said it’s important that jail staff receive regular mental health and suicide prevention training. County officials should also look to divert certain low-level offenders to treatment facilities and detox centers, he said.
“We should be investing in more mental health pods and psychiatric units, and minimizing the amount of time an individual spends in general population if they’re screened to have a mental illness and be suicidal,” Beaumont said. “But the real question we should be asking is what can we do to prevent people from ending up in a jail cell in the first place.”
Beaumont said an example of a successful diversion program is the Tulsa Sobering Center, which diverts individuals suspected of public intoxication to a specialized treatment facility rather than the county jail. Those housed at the center are given 10 hours to sober up and receive immediate access to substance abuse treatment.
“It not only saves the city of Tulsa time and money, but it gives the person an opportunity to pursue recovery,” Beaumont said. “It also means that person is not having to sober up in a jail cell where there might be additional psychological stress that could prompt a mental health episode.”
Lower Population, Less Deaths
At the start of the pandemic, government officials and justice systems across the U.S. scrambled to reduce inmate populations and make pretrial release accessible to more criminal defendants.
The U.S. jail population declined 24% between June 2019 to June 2020, according to statistics compiled by the Vera Institute of Justice. National incarceration rates increased some in late 2020 as courts resumed normal operations, but remain far lower than pre-pandemic levels.
If the nation’s jails are able to sustain low populations in a post-pandemic world, experts predict inmate deaths and mortality rates will also decrease. At least two-thirds of deaths identified in the Reuters investigation were of inmates who had not been convicted of a crime, and under most circumstances were eligible for pretrial release. Of the 148 Oklahoma inmate deaths identified in the Reuters investigation, 141 were awaiting trial and had not been convicted.
Many U.S. jail inmates remain incarcerated because they cannot afford cash bail. After temporarily loosening bail restrictions at the start of the pandemic, some state and local government officials are considering permanent reforms that could make long-term decareration possible.
While Oklahoma lawmakers have proposed several dozen criminal justice and corrections bills, significant bail reform is not on the table this legislative session. House Bill 2295, a measure that would make domestic violence and stalking defendants ineligible for personal recognizance bond, is the only bail-related bill listed on the Oklahoma State Legislature tracking website.
In 2019, members of the House narrowly rejected Senate Bill 252, a measure that would have directed judges to set bail at an amount “reasonably necessary to ensure the person’s return to court”.
While decarceration could help reduce inmate deaths, Beaumont said state and local officials should continue to search for ways to improve medical and mental health care access inside county jails.
“Just because there has been some level of justice involvement that has led to your detention doesn’t mean you deserve any less,” he said. “I think we’re starting to have those conversations and change our views about it in Oklahoma.”
Keaton Ross is a Report for America corps member who covers prison conditions and criminal justice issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Kross@Oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss
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