According to Dictionary.com, normal is defined as –“conforming to the standard or the common type; usual; not abnormal; regular.”
Usually, (normally?), this word has a reassuring connotation. We want normal lab results, normal pre-COVID times, and normal kids (sorry, mom and dad), but when it’s applied to the living conditions at the Oklahoma County Jail, the term is as reassuring as seeing a tri-color lightbar in your rearview mirror.
The Oklahoma County Jail is no stranger to criticism. According to an article by the Frontier, the jail has been slow to keep up with maintenance, mandates, and manpower. With an inmate annual mortality rate that was over 3x higher than the national average from 2016 to 2019, people have been raising concerns about the jail’s living conditions for years. Unfortunately, conditions seem to have worsened since the pandemic.
In order to decrease the population during the initial COVID-19 outbreak, the jail released approximately 10% of its residents, but the overcrowding problem is still significant. According to this article by News 9, as of last month about 20% of inmates are forced to sleep on the floor due to lack of beds and health hazards such as mold and bedbugs continue to plague the facility.
Side note: If it was so easy to release 10% of the county jail’s residents when the pandemic started, why were they incarcerated in the first place?
What makes matters worse is that that last week’s winter storm led to the incarcerated sleeping in cold conditions next to raw sewage due to weather-related damage. According to KFOR, one family member of an incarcerated individual stated, “I’m distraught that my tax dollars are not being used to facilitate a way for them to take care of the waste.”
No, of course your tax dollars are not being used properly. Last week, an audit found that $6.9 million worth of equipment was unaccounted for. The department blamed the discrepancy on a history of poor record-keeping. I don’t know, man. When I was a part-time bank teller, you’d get written up for being more than $10 off in your cash drawer. Yet we’re all supposed to be understanding when a department has $6.9 million of missing inventory?
On top of everything else, the Oklahoma County Jail is experiencing a staff shortage. Thought research suggests increased overcrowding and staff turnover are correlated with an increase in violence in prison, jail staff report that the shortage has not led to an increase reports of use of force or assaults. The overcrowding and lack of manpower has to be difficult on the incarcerated and staff alike. According to an official from the jail, the staff shortages have made it impossible to provide proper oversight in cells. Since January alone, four people have died in the Oklahoma County Jail. We have to remember, they were someone’s brother, father, cousin, and friend.
Screw the argument that these inmates deserve this treatment. First of all, last I checked in ‘Merica we are all innocent until proven guilty and 80% of the jail’s residents have not been convicted of a crime. Secondly, being sent to jail should not deprive someone of humane living conditions. Who knows what circumstances brought them behind bars? But we must know it’s time to hold the Oklahoma County Jail accountable.
To submit a complaint to the Department of Justice, visit here. To learn more about criminal justice reform in Oklahoma, visit the ACLUOK. Then follow Hayley on twitter @squirrellygeek and become a contributing member of TLO here.