Oklahoma County voters are being asked to approve a $260 million bond issue to fund the construction of a new detention center. 

The proposal will appear as a nonpartisan item on the ballot for those who vote early starting Thursday and on election day Tuesday, June 28. While Oklahoma County commissioners have floated the idea of building a new jail facility for more than a decade, this marks the first time the issue has advanced to the ballot. 

Jail replacement plans considered in 2012 and 2015 suggested using a temporary one-cent sales tax increase over several years to build a new facility. The proposals fizzled out after public polling showed scant support for a tax hike. 

All three county commissioners support this year’s plan, which proposes building a two-story, 1,800-bed facility within a ten-minute drive of downtown Oklahoma City. The total construction cost is estimated at $297 million, short of the $260 million the bond issue would raise. 

During a June 15 Oklahoma County Chamber of Commerce forum, District 1 Commissioner Carrie Blumert said the county and jail trust will have to work together to appropriate the additional $37 million. 

While federal guidelines prohibit using American Rescue Plan Act funds to build correctional facilities, county officials believe they could use some of these funds for specialized purposes within the jail. The county could also loan itself money in anticipation of operational savings in a more efficient facility. 

“The $260 million is what we could get without raising property taxes, and that’s obviously very enticing to voters to vote for something that doesn’t raise taxes but still accomplishes the goal,” Blumert said.

There’s little debate about the current state of the jail. The facility has been under federal oversight since 2008 after U.S. Department of Justice investigators discovered dozens of civil rights violations. A high-profile hostage situation in March 2021, where prisoners took a detention officer captive and Oklahoma City police shot and killed a detainee, reignited the public conversation about the facility’s poor conditions and design flaws. 

The bond issue’s supporters say a new jail would be better equipped to house detainees with medical and mental health issues. Opponents raise concerns about the jail’s leadership, anticipated maintenance costs and the potential for incarceration rates to increase in the new facility. 

If the bond issue fails, it’s back to the drawing board for county officials. District 2 Commissioner Brian Maughan told The Oklahoman “there’s no plan B” if voters opt not to fund the jail’s construction. 

If the proposal passes, contractors say construction could be complete by 2026

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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