COVID-19 outbreak hits Oklahoma County jail
As new COVID-19 cases surge to record highs in the state, the Oklahoma County jail has become the latest facility for inmates to experience an outbreak.
So far this month, 33 inmates and six people who work at the jail have tested positive, officials said Monday. More than 540 inmates have been placed in quarantine.
The outbreak comes as the jail population has climbed above 1,900, its highest in years. It also comes less than a month after a trust took over jail operations from Sheriff P.D. Taylor and three weeks before jury trials are scheduled to resume at the courthouse.
"There's clearly some issues over there," Presiding Judge Ray C. Elliott said after meeting Monday morning with jail administrator Greg Williams, District Attorney David Prater, Public Defender Bob Ravitz and others.
"I'm confident that the jail trust and the jail administrator will get things in order," Elliott said.
The full severity of the outbreak is unknown because the Oklahoma County Jail Trust has not been requiring inmates to be tested at booking. About 90% of new inmates are refusing to be tested and end up in quarantine.
The presiding judge, district attorney and public defender urged Williams on Monday morning to not give inmates an option. The trust now intends to test everyone, Mac Mullings, programs and services coordinator, said Monday afternoon.
Only one inmate tested positive in the months before the trust took over. "We're very proud of that," the sheriff said June 1.
Mullings said the trust is doing much more testing than the sheriff did. He said only about 50 COVID-19 tests were done the entire time the sheriff was in charge while the trust did three times that in just one day recently.
"The numbers are higher because the testing is higher," Mullings said.
The 13-story jail is west of downtown Oklahoma City and mostly holds defendants awaiting court. Its population has climbed, though, as more and more inmates complete their cases but have not been moved on to prison. The number awaiting transport to prison had grown to about 460 on Monday.
The public defender said he may take legal action next week to force the Oklahoma Corrections Department to pick up those inmates to make the situation at the jail and courthouse safer for everyone. "The thing is if a public defender catches it, a judge's staff could catch it, DAs could catch it," Ravitz said.
One assistant public defender was exposed last week when he met with a blind inmate in a holding area of the courthouse. The inmate was brought from the jail even though his test results were not in yet, Ravitz said. After the meeting, the results came back positive. The assistant at one point had grabbed the inmate by the arm to keep the inmate from falling.
Because of that exposure, his assistant got tested, Ravitz said. The results were negative.
The inmate also had been brought from the jail even though he had COVID-19 symptoms, The Oklahoman was told.
New policies were being put in place Monday to make sure that no inmate is brought over after exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms or testing positive, the presiding judge said. No one in the general public was exposed to the blind inmate brought over last week, the judge said.
Elliott also said Williams "assured me that will not happen again."
Jury trials are scheduled to resume Aug. 17 in Oklahoma County District Court under strict safety precautions.
In its latest epidemiology report, the Oklahoma State Department of Health last week reported more than 430 inmates at prisons, jails and juvenile detention centers have tested positive since the pandemic began. Two have died.
Almost 100 people on the staffs of those facilities have tested positive.
The severest outbreaks among inmates have been at the Comanche County jail and the Lexington Correctional Center. More than 100 inmates tested positive at jail in Lawton in May. Around 90 inmates tested positive at the prison in Lexington last week.
Oklahoma on Monday set a new record for the number of COVID-19 cases reported — 1,401.