Sheriff addresses federal complaints about jail

Monday, August 4th 2008, 11:41 pm
By: News 9

Staff and Wire Reports

OKLAHOMA CITY -  A U.S. Department of Justice report on the Oklahoma County Detention Center has led to the removal of 160 federal inmates from the facility.

Constitutional issues raised in the report, issued on Thursday, included reasonable protection of inmates from harm, constitutionally required mental health care services, adequate housing, sanitation, environmental protections and protections from serious fire safety risks.

The report recommended 11 remedial measures be taken to address the concerns.

According to the report, "several factors make the jail an unsafe environment for detainees and staff, and have resulted in serious harm to detainees."

The inquiry into the jail began in 2003. Officials from the Justice Department visited the facility three times that year, and again in April 2007, when Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel said they conducted an exit briefing with county officials.

Whetsel's office sent a 148-page response to the Justice Department addressing concerns raised during the April 2007 visit, but that response is not referenced anywhere in the Justice Department report.

Whetsel said his office will produce a "line-by-line" response to the report.

"This was submitted July 27, 2007," Whetsel said. "We received this July 31, 2008, exactly a year later."

The newly-issued 24-page federal report never referenced Whetsel's response, but it came at a time when the jail is facing negative publicity. Christopher Beckman, an Oklahoma County inmate, died a year ago after he was allegedly beaten. The death has since been investigated as a homicide, but Whetsel said he has nothing to hide.

"It was us who started the investigation," Whetsel said. "It was us who contacted the FBI. It was us who contacted the OSBI."

In July, Commissioner Brent Rinehart referenced another alleged jail beating in a campaign comic book. He wrote about an officer who called himself the Gladiator because of his use of force. Whetsel said he took action on that case.

"I fired the Gladiator and we charged the Gladiator in Oklahoma County District Court with crimes he committed in this jail," Whetsel said.

Whetsel took members of the press on a tour of the facility on Monday and pointed out the recommended changes he made. He requested installing medical response units on each floor, painting each quad a different color, and covering the surveillance camera with a dome so inmates are not aware of which way the lens is pointed. He's now in the process of drafting a line-by-line response which he will forward to the Department of Justice.

"We're hopeful that our work with the Department of Justice will be quick and we'll come to a quick resolution," Whetsel said.

The inmates were moved to the Grady County and Tulsa County Jail, which has cost Oklahoma County Jail about $3 million in lost fees for housing federal inmates.

The loss of funds has led to a hiring freeze at the Oklahoma County Jail, officials said.