His recent interview with The Oklahoman’s Kayla Branch made it clear that Greg Williams considers the men and women locked inside the Oklahoma County jail as more than occupied beds or mouths to feed – that is, more than statistics.
Williams, who assumes duties as the jail’s first administrator later this year, makes it a point to see the human beings behind the numbers. That’s a focus that, if paired with adequate resources, could make a real difference.
Williams was selected as administrator in November in a unanimous vote by the nine-person jail trust. He comes to the job after a 36-year career with the state Department of Corrections, where he began as a corrections officer and most recently was deputy chief of operations.
Along the way, Williams told Branch, he came to believe that many of those who are incarcerated can change for the better.
“I could go on for hours and hours telling you about people that have transitioned from acting like scum, and their families have given up on them and society had quit on them,” he said. “But people turn around once they realize people love them and they have a future. That light can come on so quick. So every time you connect with people, it counts.”
Williams is taking over a building that has been dogged by problems since soon after it opened in 1991. Many of those issues have been structural, and they’ve been exacerbated by overcrowding — a scathing U.S. Justice Department report a decade ago cited 60 civil rights violations including violence among inmates and violence between officers and inmates.
The crowding has been eased in recent years, in part due to police policy changes and other reforms. But Williams inherits a jail that still has considerable infrastructure concerns, such as leaky plumbing and mold, and has wrestled with highly publicized inmate deaths. Employee turnover is a problem.
The jail also has been a primary focus of work by the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council, a group of community leaders and government officials who back reforms intended to provide front-end help for offenders and thus result in fewer people being placed in the jail.
Williams’ approach would appear to be a good fit, and his long tenure with the historically cash-strapped DOC should be an asset.
He insists his top priority will be ensuring public safety. One way to do that, Williams says, is to turn inmates into citizens.
“The true side of success and purpose of all this, in my opinion, is to take a person that is struggling and dysfunctional and make them functional,” which is accomplished through face-to-face interaction, Williams says.
“I truly believe that the only thing that really changes people is other people,” he says.
And, he believes prisons and jails can be part of the solution.
“We can be seen as a social agency for change,” Williams says. “We have 24 hours, seven days a week, 365 days a year to do that work.”
It’s a new day at the Oklahoma County jail — and with any luck, an improved one.