This is a reprint of an article written by Craig Dawkins that was recently posted to Red Dirt Report. Craig is a former member of the Oklahoma County Jail Funding Taskforce, which was a committee tasked with looking into the problems at the Oklahoma County Detention Center.
Smoke and Mirrors: A public rebuke of the status quo and why Oklahoma County residents should elect a new sheriff.
By Craig Dawkins
OKLAHOMA CITY -- As a former member of the Oklahoma County Jail Funding Taskforce, I have quite a bit of personal insight into the history of the jail and how it has been operated under the guidance of the current sheriff John Whetsel.
The Oklahoma County Detention Center opened for use in November of 1991 at a total cost of $53.3 million. Just before the jail opened for operations, a grand jury examined the facility and determined that it was an excellent jail that “county citizens could be proud of.” For those counting, our jail is only 21 years old. Whetsel has been sheriff 16 of those 21 years.
Since then, there have been three separate committees that have looked into the problems at the jail. The “Primary 9” jail committee, the Jail Funding Taskforce committee, and the Adult Detention Advisory Committee (ADAC) made recommendations to the county and none of those recommendations have been implemented. Two of the three jail committees (Primary 9 and ADAC) recommended the jail be placed under a jail trust authority. The county pledged to do so after ADAC issued its report but has thus far failed to follow through on that promise. You should know that Whetsel adamantly opposes a jail trust. It appears county officials on the Budget Board also oppose a jail trust. A jail trust will not come as long as Whetsel is our county sheriff.
Some might ask, “Why do we want a jail trust running our jail?” It’s all about accountability. Something that Whetsel has resisted at every turn by each of the committees that have reviewed his operations. Under current state law, a county sheriff can spend their monies in any way they want to do so.
In a story published by The Journal Record on May 1, 2003, former Oklahoma City mayor Kirk Humphreys said, "It's totally unaccountable. If the sheriff wanted to buy a jet airplane, he could, according to this ballot language, and he'd be answerable to nobody." Trust me when I say that’s exactly the way Whetsel wants it. I have been in numerous meetings where Whetsel defiantly announced that he is accountable to no-one other than the Oklahoma County voters.
So the question is what has Whetsel done, after 16 years deserving of another term? Some might say that, despite his personal failures in operating the jail, he’s done an admirable job of law enforcement. But let’s take a quick look at that issue.
According to the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, roughly 1.7% of Oklahoma County residents live in unincorporated areas. Meaning, that 98.3% of county residents already have local law enforcement departments patrolling their localities.
The city of Edmond is roughly 10% of all county residents. However, based on how much is spent on law enforcement activities, Whetsel spends roughly twice as much as the city of Edmond on law enforcement activities. The sheriff has a duty and mission to patrol unincorporated areas of the county. But how much law enforcement duplication do we need Since 2000, the Oklahoma County residents have paid $2.5 million in legal damages to those who have befallen unconstitutional treatment by workers at our county jail. The U.S. Department of Justice withdrew all federal inmates from the Oklahoma County jail in 2008 due to unconstitutional management of the jail facility, with a threat to fix the problems or risk a federal takeover of the jail. Promises were made that the issues have been resolved. Then in July of this year, Fox25 exposed that inmates were being forced to participate in reelection efforts of Whetsel and using taxpayer funded paint, equipment, and payroll to help run “Boss-Hogg’s” campaign efforts. Yet another civil rights violation that will cost county taxpayers in the end. This is a kind of arrogance that cannot be understated.
Whetsel has a past record of intentionally overpopulating the jail facility for the purposes of leveraging that condition for more tax dollars from the county taxpayers. This practice was exposed by Public Defender Bob Ravitz who uncovered in testimony from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections that Whetsel consistently fell short of his quota to move post-adjudicated inmates to the Lexington processing center. Why would Whetsel do this? Because at that time, he was getting around $28 per day to house state inmates by contract. His own office certified that it costs over $45 per day to house inmates.
But it did two things for him that would further his interests. First, it would give him additional monies that he could direct to law enforcement activities, and second, it allowed him to use overcrowding conditions at the jail to demand more county taxpayer money. It was a game that ended up costing taxpayers much more money in the end.
And now the county is talking about a $350 million new jail facility. The downtown chamber crowd likes this idea because they see it as an economic development improvement for the OKC downtown area. That in fact, may be true.
But it doesn’t change any of the problems associated with the management of the jail. And it ends up costing Oklahoma taxpayers millions more on a facility to replace one that is only 21 years old. This is bad policy compounded by the fact that they will not place the new facility under a jail trust.
When ADAC submitted its final report to the Oklahoma County commissioners, they wrote: Winston Churchill said “Society can be measured by the way its Prisoners are treated”. If that is true, Oklahoma County is failing. We have discussed extensively the concern that the County may find itself as a defendant in a civil-rights enforcement action that may be brought by the Department of Justice or a private civil-rights class action.
This is a legitimate concern and proper motivation for change. But as one of the members said during the discussions of our recommendations, “it is just wrong to treat the inmates over there the way we have been treating them for years. It is not right, and a society like ours should not do it, and we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.”
While the individual employees of the Jail do their best with the resources, directives and facilities they are given, the current operation of the Jail is in our view unacceptable. Change must occur. The Jail has many problems, and not all of them are attributable to the design and condition of the building.
Insanity has been described as doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. Sending Whetsel to another term in office will send the DOJ the wrong message and likely place Oklahoma County taxpayers in further jeopardy.
But what about Darrell Sorrels? Why would Sorrels be a better choice for sheriff? Let me cite the reasons. First, despite the rough treatment he has received in The Oklahoman, he is smart enough to understand that another direction is order at every level of the sheriff’s department. He will make changes to how the county spends its financial resources.
He will spend those resources on solving the management problems of the jail. He will not engage in law enforcement activities that cities should be doing on their own. He will continue to patrol the unincorporated areas of the county, but will not be wasteful in how this is done. And he will vigorously show allegiance to the U.S. Constitution and that of the state of Oklahoma.
Sixteen years of failure is enough. Likable or not, Whetsel’s mismanagement cannot continue and will likely be the cause of the DOJ taking over our jail facility.
Let’s hold Whetsel accountable for his 16 years of waste and futile efforts.