Oklahoma County jail officials refuse to release records on jail deaths
Moments after his September inauguration, newly elected Oklahoma County Sheriff P.D. Taylor pledged to clean up problems plaguing the sheriff's department, including a string of inmate deaths at the Oklahoma County jail.
But months later, sheriff's department officials have refused to release emails and other records that would shed light on how the department handles such deaths.
A dozen jail inmates have died so far in 2017. On Dec. 14, prosecutors filed felony charges against two former jailers in connection with one of those deaths.
Charlton Cash Chrisman, 40, of Yukon, died April 19 after jailers repeatedly shot him with pepper ball guns. Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said Thursday that jailers Colton Ray, 26, and Brian Harrison, 33, acted "without justifiable or excusable cause" in the incident. Ray and Harrison face one count each of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon charges. They are scheduled to appear in court January 23.
On July 6, a day after jail inmate Nhan Thanh Nguyen, 46, died in an apparent suicide, The Oklahoman requested copies of all emails, memos and other internal communication since January 1, 2015, concerning the deaths of jail inmates.
Such records could show how department officials responded to inmate deaths and identify measures they may have taken to correct any problems that led to the incidents.
On Sept. 13, two months after The Oklahoman's initial request, sheriff's department spokesman Mark Opgrande sent an email attributing the delay in releasing the records to the development of the department's new website. Opgrande said IT staffers may have put the records search on hold while they completed that project.
In that same email, Opgrande said the department would likely refuse to release the records, saying they weren't among the types of records law enforcement agencies are required to disclose under the Oklahoma Open Records Act.
A section of the act lays out several types of law enforcement records that agencies are required to make available upon request. All other records may be withheld or released at the agency's discretion unless a court finds that the public interest outweighs the agency's reason for denial.
The requested records fall into the second category, a fact The Oklahoman noted in a Sept. 19 email response to the department emphasizing that nothing prohibited the records' release.
Just the day before, another Oklahoma County jail inmate, Trenton Cole, 62, died at a hospital after being transported from the jail for medical reasons. Cole was the 12th county jail inmate to die this year.
In November, after four months of delays and two months after Taylor was sworn in as sheriff, jail officials rendered a final decision and denied The Oklahoman's records request. Taylor also declined a request for an interview for this story.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma has encountered the same lack of transparency over the years when trying to monitor conditions at the county jail, said Brady Henderson, the group's legal director. Because of reporting requirements, the organization is able to keep track of details of cases in which an inmate died. But less is known about lower-level issues, including cases in which an inmate nearly died but eventually recovered, Henderson said.
“As much as we try to monitor, I feel like there is more that we don't know than we know," Henderson said.
The department's lack of willingness to release records about jail deaths could leave the public with the impression that the department isn't taking the problem seriously, Henderson said.
Although the sheriff's department refused to release records showing how jail officials responded to inmate deaths, the department did release a list of improvements and other changes they said had been completed at the county jail in the months since Taylor took over as acting sheriff, including efforts to release certain low-risk inmates on their own recognizance or on conditional bond release.
That release program, combined with other efforts to ease jail overcrowding, have brought the jail's population below 2,000 inmates for the first time in years, allowing the department to close and rehabilitate jail pods, officials said.
Among other changes, jail officials have installed about 50 security cameras, rehabilitated the kitchen and redesigned the booking process to bring inmates into the jail more safely and smoothly.
Jail staff members are also working more closely with the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to identify inmates with mental health issues and connect them with mental health services. Jail officials also send lists of newly booked inmates to the Oklahoma State Department of Health to check for pre-existing conditions and prescriptions the inmate may require.
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 ›