Janet Barber

Grove Sun

JAY – The pending lawsuit filed against Delaware County for violating health codes due to overcrowding in the Delaware County jail has been dropped according to representatives from the Oklahoma State Department of Health, but say they will have to right to re-file after reviewing past records.

James W. Joslin, Chief of the Health Resources Development Service, along with Pat Cantrell, Assistant General Counsel, both attached to the Oklahoma State Health Department, were present at the October 6 meeting of the Delaware County Public Facilities Authority meeting to address and gather information on what has transpired to correct the non-compliance with state regulations regarding overcrowding.

The county was sued four years ago by the State Department of Health and the jail authority has tried to devise a plan to remedy the situation by trying to pass a sales tax increase to fund a new facility three times, only to have all three propositions voted down, with Grove voters overwhelmingly opposing the measures.

The last defeat put the lawsuit in the hands of state’s attorneys who had earlier threatened a fine of up to $10,000 a day per prisoner over the maximum limit. The fines were to be levied on the property taxes of Delaware County property owners.

The reprieve given during Wednesday’s meeting may be short lived as Ms. Cantrell told the authority that the decision to dismiss the case was made after she had received the files only two weeks ago. “We may re-file after the records dating back to 2005 are reviewed,” she said.

She told the board that the state health department still expects the county to continue to work on the situation, despite the reprieve they’ve been given but also relayed to the group that their department does not want to be part of the problem, but would like to help find a solution.

James Joslin, chief of the State Department of Health’s resources development service added that, “The health Department realizes a new facility is not happening, but what is the county doing to address the situation?”

Judge Barry Denney addressed the question by saying that a Community Sentencing Council had been formed recently with a $20,000 starting budget received from the Department of Corrections that should help 15 to 20 sentences per year, but also said that without a new jail facility it will be difficult to make the program work.

“We still need a new jail. We have to be able to tell these people that if they do not comply with the program, that they could face incarceration. We can’t do that if the jail is already overcrowded,” he added.

Drug court was also thrown in the alternative sentencing mix by District Attorney Eddie Wyant, claiming too that he appreciated the state’s dismissal of the lawsuit, but also understood that it can be re-filed “tomorrow”.

“This hasn’t gone away, we understand that,” he said.

State Representative Doug Cox told Cantrell and Joslin that the department of corrections “pick and choose” which prisoners they want from the jail claiming that they leave the “lifer’s” and take those with short term sentences.

“The residents of Delaware County shouldn’t have to pay for the sins of DOC," Cox said.

Sheriff Jay Blackfox followed up by saying that the DOC also leaves prisoners who require extensive medical assistance through expensive medication.

“I’m not picking on anybody, but every Monday afternoon we call DOC. We had a load scheduled and they postponed it, when we got it back they started picking out who we could bring and they kicked a couple of them off that really needed to go,” he said. “Right now we’ve got 10 to transport. We can only haul eight and that’s why we call every week, but when they don’t have room we have to keep them. That’s where the public is getting the idea that we’re housing them. We’re only holding them, we’re not housing them for money.”

Wyant added that Ottawa County has 40 to 45 prisoners waiting for DOC beds. Judge Robert Haney told the board that he had sentenced a prisoner to Regimented Inmate Discipline (RID) in January of this year and by the time they could get him to the program, he couldn’t complete the sentence.

“The DOC is keeping us overloaded,” he claimed.

Others in attendance voiced their opinions and views of what could and could not be done including yet another “tent jail” and the renovation of the old 34-bed facility which was condemned years ago by the State Department of Health due to issues of fire escape, mold, sewage and other health issues affecting prisoners.

A feasibility study was done during a third session by SouthBuild who determined that the 38,000 square feet area would cost $1,319,498.00 to bring up to code which would include lead paint abatement and dealing with other DEQ issues including asbestos, mold and sewage. The study was considered and determined by the trust to be a “band-aid” on the still existing problem, and would not be feasible as a long-term solution.

Despite all the opinions and finger pointing, no solution was reached during the meeting and at the conclusion Joslin told the trust that he would research the DOC transfer policy, review the history of why the state condemned the old jail facility, research the legality of housing prisoners in tents, and look into how other counties use innovative ways to house their prisoners.

They were asked and agreed to return on December 8 at 2 p.m. to relay their findings. The meeting will be held in the Delaware County Commissioners office of the Delaware County Courthouse.