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As safety violations pile up, Hughes County DA seeks to close jail

Erik Johnson, the district attorney over Pontotoc, Hughes and Seminole Counties is making strides to close the Hughes County Jail because it's dangerous and not an ideal living environment for detainees.
Ashlynd Huffman
Oklahoma Watch
Erik Johnson, the district attorney over Pontotoc, Hughes and Seminole Counties is making strides to close the Hughes County Jail because it's dangerous and not an ideal living environment for detainees.

Conditions have become so dangerous at the Hughes County jail that the newly elected district attorney said it is no longer safe for detention officers or detainees and should be shut down.

Jail officials failed to address violations revealed in seven health department inspections since 2019.

The Oklahoma State Health Department is required to inspect jails annually. Reports obtained by Oklahoma Watch show the Hughes County jail failed three inspections in 2019, one each in 2020 and 2021, and two in 2022, when inspectors found four times as many violations as the previous year.

Inspectors found detainees wearing torn and tattered jail-provided clothing and sleeping on the floor in cells with leaking toilets and standing water, according to a March 2022 report obtained through the state open records act.

The jail, in the basement of the courthouse, is designed for 36 prisoners. Last year, 454 people were detained there, at times pushing the jail well past capacity.

The 2022 health report cited instances of a three-person cell holding seven prisoners and three people locked in a cell so small inspectors said it shouldn’t have held anyone at all. On Tuesday, the jail housed 27 detainees.

Erik Johnson, the district attorney for Hughes, Pontotoc, and Seminole counties said there’s only one way in or out of the jail. Inspectors found one emergency exit padlocked and another blocked by a mattress and other storage items.

“If there’s a fire down there there’s only one means of ingress and egress and that’s up the stairs,” said Johnson. “What happens if the fire is on the stairs? It’s a life safety issue.”

In 2021, inspectors observed detainees bedded on a floor close to a cell toilet, the base of which was wrapped with blankets to absorb leaking water. Inspections in both years found electric cords strewn across the corridors created a tripping hazard and risk of electric shock.

Jails that fail inspections are required to submit a proposal to fix violations to the Oklahoma State Department of Health within 60 days. If no action is taken, state law requires the commissioner of health to file a complaint with the local district attorney or attorney general’s office. Johnson said he was unaware if any of those complaints had been filed.

Voters rejected a 2020 initiative to build a new jail in Hughes County with 78.7% of 1,251 ballots cast opposing the plan.

The $4.5 million building would have increased capacity by 47%, relieving overcrowding that has made it impossible to segregate inmates and manage the jail in a safe manner.

After voters defeated the initiative, the county spent more than $130,000 on improvements, said former Hughes County commissioner Gary Phillips.

“That doesn’t change the fact that we really need a new jail,” said Phillips, who served on the county commission for 8 years.

Johnson, the district attorney, proposed a plan in March to house detainees in nearby Seminole County, but Hughes County officials must first reach an agreement with Seminole County on the cost, which they’ll discuss Tuesday at a special meeting.

Johnson said after an agreement is reached with Seminole County, he will submit a review to the state attorney general before closing the jail.

“Once we transfer our last inmate out of there, we’ll turn the lights off and secure the door so that nobody can go down in there,” Johnson said.

Hughes would become Oklahoma’s only county without its own jail.

In 2022, inspectors found only three violations at the larger Seminole County jail compared to 48 in Hughes County, records show.

Phillips said he was concerned that Hughes County won’t be able to afford to move its detainees to the Seminole County jail. It costs $27 per day to house a prisoner in the Hughes County Jail and $67.54 per day in Seminole County.

The Seminole County Jail was built 10 years ago and can accommodate 169 prisoners. As of Wednesday the jail held 71 people.

“I take liability issues that could have a financial impact on the county very seriously,” Johnson said. “And so I believe it’s part of my job to advise the Hughes County Board of County Commissioners and they’re aware of it. The sheriff’s aware of it. Everyone’s aware of it. We just need to get it resolved.”

Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.

Oklahoma Watch is a non-profit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state. Oklahoma Watch is non-partisan and strives to be balanced, fair, accurate and comprehensive. The reporting project collaborates on occasion with other news outlets. Topics of particular interest include poverty, education, health care, the young and the old, and the disadvantaged.
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