August 7, 2008

Oklahoma County Jail’s Death Toll Draws Federal Ire

By Nolan Clay and John Estus, The Oklahoman

Aug. 7--The Oklahoma County jail can be a deadly place.

At least 44 jail inmates have died in the jail's custody since Jan. 1, 2000, records show.

Several were suicides, often by hanging. A few were beaten to death by other inmates. One may have been killed by detention officers. Many died from natural causes, but sometimes those health problems may have been aggravated by beatings or poor care.

Some of the deaths were actually in the jail. Others occurred after inmates were moved for medical treatment.

Three times -- in 1998, 2002 and 2005 -- babies born to jail inmates did not survive.

In a year-old report made public this week, the U.S. Justice Department pointed to some of the deaths to justify its conclusion that inmates' rights are being violated in the jail.

Federal officials removed 160 federal defendants from the jail because of the problems.

Among the factors behind the deaths are "an inordinately high risk of detainee-on-detainee violence," virtually nonexistent direct supervision of detainees, "deficient suicide prevention" and inadequate health care, the report found. County officials insist improvements already have been made.

One of the examples in the Justice Department report was the 2005 baby death. The Justice Department said the care of the baby's mother was "unconscionable;" the mother had been handcuffed to a rail for most of 10 hours.

How sheriff responds Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel, who oversees the jail, said the number of deaths doesn't seem high since the jail books in up to 45,000 people a year.

"The majority of the people who come in here are not those who take care of their health," Whetsel said. "Even one death is too many, but unfortunately the vast majority of these are heart attacks or just health issues that lead to their death."

Many inmates have serious drug-related health problems, Whetsel said.

"To us, every life is important regardless of who they are. Even a person who is here on some bad charge. ... When they can't save that life, our detention officers themselves become extremely emotional," the longtime sheriff said.

Whetsel said suicide prevention procedures have been modified recently to provide closer monitoring of suicidal inmates. Such inmates are given paper gowns instead of cloth gowns to prevent possible hangings. They are checked on by detention officers every 15 minutes.

Typically, 15 to 20 inmates are under suicide watch at any time, Whetsel said.

"What you can't reduce is the person who is determined to commit suicide but never expresses that," Whetsel said.


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