The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

July 29, 2013

County detention facility overcrowded: Failure of Legislature to address D.O.C. issues cited

By Robert Barron, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — Jail overcrowding has been a problem for the state’s county jails for 30 years. When Garfield County built a new jail in 2002, it was large enough to satisfy jail requirements and eliminate a lawsuit against the county by the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

But today, due to repeat offenders and Department of Corrections rules, county jails once again are severely overcrowded, and Garfield County is no exception.

Sheriff Jerry Niles said Monday the capacity for the county detention center to meet American Correctional Association standards is 198 beds. State standards are based on square footage and will allow a few more, he said. However, the average daily population of the Garfield County Jail in July is 285 inmates.

“That doesn’t mean they are all there every second of the day. Today, (Monday) it’s 286 — 249 males and 37 females,” Niles said.

The problem has arisen because the Oklahoma Legislature so far has failed to address Department of Corrections issues relating to housing. Many legislators want to use private prisons and Niles believes that is a mistake. Private prisons cost more, he said.

When an individual is sentenced to prison, Niles said, they become the property of the Department of Corrections. A copy of the judgment and sentence is mailed to the DOC.

“At that point, the DOC gives us $27 a day, per DOC inmate,” he said. The average cost to house an inmate in the least secure facility is $36 a day. Minimum Security is $48 per day and maximum security is $69 to $74 per day, Niles said.

“Everyone we have in our jail is across the spectrum from minimum to maximum security, is only paid at $27 a day,” Niles said.

The DOC is saving money by housing 2,000 prisoners in county jails. However, Niles said that savings is at the expense of local taxpayers.

“Tax money in one sense all comes from the same pocket, but sometimes it comes from different parts of the pocket,” Niles said.

In reality, the state must spend money at the Department of Corrections, he said. They must spend money on infrastructure, but also getting people into probation and parole programs requires hiring new probation and parole officers to make sure the parolees are obeying their rules.

“In society, the biggest thing is, everyone is held accountable. Responsibility and accountability are important,” Niles said.

Another part of the problem is that repeat offenders know the system. They know if they are non-violent, they will receive six-days credit for every day served. When juries believe they are being tough on crime by giving someone a 10-year sentence, what is the real sentence they serve? That’s my problem,” Niles said.

Some people serve nearly their entire sentence in the county jail. When they finally arrive at DOC, they are back on the streets within three or four months, he said. That is another concern.

“Everyone needs to look at the totality of the picture. We need to really look at how to retain and incarcerate people. I’m all for keeping violent offenders off the street and DOC gives them a lot of programs within for inmates,” he said.

Among the programs available are drug offender work camp, regimented inmate discipline programs and other education programs that are available. There also are counseling programs for sex offenders and other positive aspects of the DOC, he said.

“I’m not laying the blame on anyone. We, as a society and community, need input, and come to expect more money is needed, smart spending and smart programs,” Niles said.

Tulsa County has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections for overcrowding their jail. Niles said there is some belief the lawsuit may become a class-action involving all 77 counties.

However, the prison issue is a double-edged sword for county sheriff’s. Because sheriff’s have so many unfunded mandates, they need and use the money they receive from the state, he said.