Dying behind bars: Since the beginning of 2016, 19 inmates have died in the Oklahoma County jail, many by suicide
On the afternoon of April 9, a guard walked past a maximum security cell at the Oklahoma County jail and noticed a piece of paper over the window.
Entering the cell, the guard found inmate Aaron Ducky Spottedcorn hanging limp, a makeshift noose tied to a bunk.
Jailers rushed Spottedcorn, 30, to OU Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead, despite efforts to revive him.
Spottedcorn is the latest in a string of deaths in the Oklahoma County jail. In 2016, 15 people died in jail custody. That total represented a considerable spike, following just four deaths in 2015 and six in 2014. Spottedcorn was the fourth person to die in the jail's custody this year.
Of the 15 inmate deaths last year, five were likely suicides, jail officials said. Officials blamed the other 10 deaths on natural causes. Of the four inmates who have died this year, Spottedcorn is the only apparent suicide. The cause of death in the other three cases appeared to be from natural causes, according to the sheriff's office.
None of the deaths since the beginning of 2016 have been the result of jailhouse violence. The last homicide in Oklahoma County jail occurred in 2014.
Spottedcorn had been arrested four days earlier and charged with murder in connection with the beating death of Beaux McGlothlin, 79, an Edmond haberdasher. After Spottedcorn's death, acting Oklahoma County Sheriff P.D. Taylor told The Oklahoman that he had taken steps to prevent jail suicides since taking the post earlier this year following the retirement of Sheriff John Whetsel.
Still, Taylor said, preventing every jail suicide is nearly impossible.
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"If somebody really wants to kill themselves, there's not much anybody can do about it because the ones who are serious about it don't talk about it, they just do it," he said.
Of the 19 jail inmates to die since the beginning of 2016, 14 were men and five were women. The oldest was Joe Carnnal, 73, who died on August 3. The youngest was Davey Mark Jimmerson, 21, who was found unresponsive in his cell about 2 a.m. on March 25 this year. He was taken to St. Anthony Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Those figures don't include the death of Lorez Chambers, who died in June after spending 49 minutes at the Oklahoma County jail last year. A sheriff's department spokesman said Chambers, 43, was never booked into the jail, but was instead taken to a hospital after jail medical personnel determined he needed medical treatment. The state medical examiner's office concluded that Chambers died of blunt force trauma to the head.
Civil rights advocates say many of the deaths in the county jail could have been prevented with better medical care.
“The jail has an inordinate number of very preventable deaths that are occurring and have been occurring for many years," said Brady Henderson, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma.
Jail officials came under fire nearly a decade ago, when a U.S. Department of Justice investigation concluded the jail was "an unsafe environment for detainees and staff, and may have resulted in serious harm to detainees," according to a Justice Department findings letter sent to Oklahoma County commissioners in 2008.
In particular, Justice Department officials found fault with the number of inmates housed at the jail. In the letter, investigators wrote that the jail housed more than 2,500 detainees, more than double its intended capacity.
That overcrowding, combined with the "awkward physical layout" of the jail meant that jailers couldn't provide enough supervision to prevent fights. The DOJ criticized poor sight lines in the 13-story facility that limited jailers' abilities to monitor prisoners.
"In fact, actual direct supervision of detainees at the jail is virtually nonexistent," investigators wrote. "The facility is not adequately staffed to maintain necessary supervision of detainees to secure their safety."
Since then, overcrowding hasn't abated. Last year, officials said the jail's population sometimes exceeded 2,400 inmates.
Last year, a task force headed up by businessman and Oklahoma City Thunder chairman Clay Bennett concluded that simply building a new, better-designed jail wouldn't address the overcrowding issues. The task force called on local and state leaders to address the issues that were driving overcrowding — mental health and addiction, in particular.
At a news conference in December, then-Sheriff Whetsel said the sheriff's department had already implemented several strategies designed to alleviate overcrowding.
Jail staff revamped the intake process, shortening the amount of time it takes to book an inmate and freeing up other staff to help release inmates more quickly, he said. The Oklahoma City Police Department had also found ways to issue citations without making an arrest, meaning fewer people end up in jail to begin with.
Medical resources strained
Aside from simply making the prison population more difficult to manage, overcrowding can also overextend a jail's medical facilities, said Martin Horn, a lecturer at City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction.
If a jail's infirmary is built to manage 1,200 inmates but the jail's population is more than 2,000, the jail's medical resources will be strained, Horn said. That means inmates who are sick or injured won't be able to access care as quickly as they need, he said. In some cases, he said, delayed care could lead to death.
The state chapter of the ACLU monitors conditions at the Oklahoma County jail, as well as other county jails. When jails are looking to trim their budgets, medical expenses are often one of the areas cut, said Henderson, the state ACLU legal director. Those cuts often mean that medical emergencies that would be manageable on the outside, like asthma attacks and or an allergic reaction, can be deadly in jail, he said.
“Just by definition, things aren't going to go real well when you overtax something to that degree," Henderson said.
Tony Little, a former inmate at the jail, said he'd seen at least two cases in which jailers were slow to respond to a medical emergency. In both cases, other inmates had seizures, Little said. In one case, guards stood by and watched as a female inmate was "flopping around on the floor like a fish," Little said. When a nurse came to assist, guards said the woman was faking and wouldn't let the nurse touch the woman, Little said.
In the second case, several guards stood in a male prisoner's cell and watched as the man convulsed on the floor. After several minutes, once the man had gone limp, a nurse showed up to help, he said.
“He should have been in a hospital," Little said. "Shouldn't have been in a cell.”
Conditions at the jail have invited lawsuits in the past. In a suit filed last year, an inmate serving weekends in jail for assault claimed he was given his medicine only once, even though he had provided a jail nurse a certified copy of a judicial order requiring him to get 12 doses over three days, records show.
In the suit, the inmate's attorney wrote the inmate suffered severe abdominal pain and other medical issues as a result.
Mark Opgrande, a spokesman for the Oklahoma County Sheriff's Department, said inmates are subjected to a lengthy health screening when they're booked into the jail. The screening covers physical and mental health issues including drug use, sexual history and any history of suicidal thoughts. Inmates with immediate medical issues are sent to a medical facility on the 13th floor of the jail, Opgrande said.
Last year, officials dedicated a group of guards to respond to suicide attempts, Opgrande said. Having a designated group allows officials to reach an inmate more quickly, giving them a better chance of surviving the attempt, he said.
Anytime an inmate dies in the jail, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation looks into how and why the person died, Opgrande said. The jail's staff takes those investigations seriously and works to find ways to prevent other inmates from suffering the same fate, he said.
“It's a concern anytime anyone dies in the jail," Opgrande said. "Not all times is it preventable, but it's still our job to try to find a way to prevent that.”
Contributing: Staff Writer Nolan Clay
Names, ages and dates of death of Oklahoma County jail inmates who have died in custody since the beginning of 2016
Ismael Shee Liwanag, 59, Jan. 13, 2016
Dale Stanley Schmidt, 58, March 13, 2016
Debbie Louise McAbee, 55, April 8, 2016
Rebecca Anne Roberts, 58, April 11, 2016
Joseph Carter Wilson, 30, May 20, 2016
Cody Joe McDonald, 28, May 22, 2016
Bruno Elias Bermea, 53, June 7, 2016
Robert Vinson Hollis, 60, June 25, 2016
Michael G. Novosad, 51, June 26, 2016
Joe Carnnal, 73, August 3, 2016
Violet Buford, 25, Sept. 2, 2016
Joanna Cortez, 39, Sept. 22, 2016
Richard Smith, 57, Oct. 19, 2016
Javier Contreras, 52, Nov. 18, 2016
John Kelly, 55, November 19, 2016
Ricky Earl Windle, 53, Feb. 4, 2017
Amanda Freeman, 32, Feb. 11, 2017
Davey Mark Jimmerson, 21, March 25, 2017
Aaron Spottedcorn, 30, April 9, 2017
Silas Allen is a news reporter for The Oklahoman. He is a Missouri native and a 2008 graduate of the University of Missouri. Read more ›