OKC business leaders tour the Oklahoma County Jail
At the heart of the progress being made on justice reform in Oklahoma County has been the business community. It was the business community, through the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, that created the special task force that led to the VERA Institute report and recommendations on changes that were necessary and timely for the county’s justice system.
The VERA Institute report led to the governments of Oklahoma County, Oklahoma City, Edmond and Midwest City recognizing the need for the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council to help the county create a more fair and effective justice system.
Such early leadership continues to be evident, as illustrated by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber’s Board of Advisors' interest and turnout for a recent tour of the Oklahoma County jail.
“As more executives go on the jail tour, they will see for themselves the extreme challenges with the jail conditions in our county,” said Timothy Tardibono, executive director of the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council. “This new awareness confirms that change must occur and will lead to better ideas and solutions than have ever been discussed around this topic before in our county. Business leaders in our community recognize that our city and county’s renaissance can be enjoyed by all our neighbors, even those needing second chances and those needing help overcoming their addictions.“
According to Tardibono, business leaders see these problems in their workforce every day and want government leaders to join them in creating better solutions for the justice system in Oklahoma County.
“Their ability to educate city and county leaders can only increase as they tour the jail for themselves and feel the burden of the problem coupled with the hope of a better day for our community,” he added.
“I'd heard how inadequate the facility was, but it was powerful to see the logistical nightmares created by poor planning for the staff,” said Lee Copeland, communications manager, professional and graduate studies, Southern Nazarene University. “Being locked in a cramped, over-crowded cell for days on end surely makes the jobs of our jail staff more difficult and seems to work counter to any desire to work toward rehabilitation or resolving the underlying issues that may have led to an inmates entry into the legal system. It was helpful to understand that this isn't simply just about the physical space at the jail, this is also about the policies and processes within our legal system that must be reformed as well. While I understand that this is an infinitely complex problem--it is nonetheless one that we must own and resolve.”
“We are sending people to jail who have addictions and then sending them out with no pipeline to organizations that can help further treat the problem.”
“To be in the space and hear from the staff, to feel the tightness of the space, to ‘feel’ the smell - you cannot always express those things through video or the written word,” said Melanie Anthony, vice president of development and community engagement for PivotOK. “I liked hearing from staff saying how they want better for the inmates. The difficulty the inmates face also makes it very difficult on staff. When the inmates can have more space, more time outside of their cells, it lowers anxieties, tensions, etc. To hear that fees and charges come from the state level shows a disconnect. While I have an understanding of the system and challenges, being in that space just added an even deeper understanding, resolve and commitment to fight for justice reform for those in central Oklahoma and across our state.”
Stephen Lein, vice president of treasury management at MidFirst Bank, said that there is a definite need for modernization on the jail facility for the staff and inmates. But he is impressed by the “community involvement of local business leaders and government to find solutions to the problems facing this dilemma. It opened my eyes to an issue that I was not versed in or really aware of.”
“Our purpose seems to be to just throw people away for a given time period and hope things get better.”
Like Lein, many of the Board of Advisors members had their eyes opened to the serious challenges to improve justice in our county.
“After completing the tour I was certainly awakened to other conditions that I did not know were present before going on the tour – there is a fundamental need for change which extends well beyond the overcrowding, in my opinion,” said Amber Tyler, audit partner with Eide Bailly LLP. “Conditions such as laundry in the basement, limited elevator capacity and maximum security detention cells are much more critical areas to address than I would have ever imagined.”
“Our purpose seems to be to just throw people away for a given time period and hope things get better,” said Chris Meredith, manager of legislative affairs for Farmers Insurance. “We are sending people to jail who have addictions and then sending them out with no pipeline to organizations that can help further treat the problem.”
Mike Moran, consulting manager for HoganTaylor suggested that laws and protocols have to be changed to avoid incarcerating non-violent offenders prior to sentencing whenever possible.
“The Oklahoma County Jail is woefully deficient, and new solutions must be found to house minimum and medium security prisoners that include education, training and rehabilitation,” he said. “Diversionary programs must be implemented to reduce the prison population and get these individuals the help they truly need.”
“Several Board of Advisors members had innovative input and ideas on how to solve some of these challenges,” said Tardibono. “Several wanted to go in-depth with an extended tour including meeting our community-based service providers that help with treatment, job training, family services and more. Others want to bring their community, civic, or faith groups to see it too. This interest and feedback is exactly what is needed for a new conversation as to what the future look like for justice and justice-related facilities in the county.”
“It should have been a priority years ago and [I'm] so thankful that the business community and the task force has stepped up to make it a priority now,” said Melissa Blake, account manager with Heritage Integrated.
Seeing the conditions first-hand that people have been talking about for years can certainly be eye-opening and brings attention to the problems, but what can be done to remedy the situation?
“We are continuing to see improvements in safely reducing the jail population,” said Tardibono. “In fact, we are starting to see the jail population reduced to numbers we haven’t seen in more than a decade. That is good news for improving public safety while also decreasing costs to the taxpayer.”
But, that’s just a drop in the bucket. Even with this progress, the jail is overcrowded and difficult for staff to provide needed services. What else needs to be done? Tardibono has some ideas.
“Our next steps are to continue to improve the justice system while the community imagines what a future facility looks like,” he said. “Previous discussions in our county have always been about building a bigger facility. The current conversation is exploring whether it’s smarter to build smaller with the concept of a justice center that facilitates more options than we have in the current jail.”
Some of those other options include ideas like quicker booking and release, on-site connection to local providers, a facility housing minimum and/or medium level offenders in appropriate settings and a hub or case monitoring and accountability.
"We are starting to see the jail population reduced to numbers we haven’t seen in more than a decade. That is good news for improving public safety while also decreasing costs to the taxpayer.”
“Those are the options other cities and counties are building into their new or renovated facilities,” Tardibono added. “And those are the solutions we need here to increase public safety and to interrupt the addiction cycle some of our neighbors are trapped in. As for the state, it looks like the overdue justice reinvestment funding could be allocated in the upcoming legislative session.”
That funding will provide much needed services in OK County for addiction treatment and recovery. Progress is being made, but the big challenge is how to keep the momentum moving in the right direction. That’s why the support and advice of Chamber members matters.