Federal COVID-19 funds for a new jail? Oklahoma County commissioners, citizens weigh in

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – There is more controversy around the Oklahoma County jail: As the county tries to decide what to do with millions of dollars in federal CARES Act money, some officials want to spend it on a new jail. Some county residents say, not so fast.

Officially, Monday’s special County Commissioner’s meeting was to take bids on, among other things, consultants to help oversee the spending of 154 million dollars of federal COVID relief money. But it quickly turned into arguments from activists on why a new brick and mortar jail is not the best way to spend those funds.

“We don’t stop crime by building another building that is going to take 2-5 years to build, when we have realistic solutions today,” said activist Christopher Johnston.

Activists say CARES Act money is better spent on mental health care, transitional housing and a revolving bail fund for inmates. They say all would be designed to reduce prisoner numbers inside the jail.

“We need a jail that is going to have no more than 200 people, cut and dry. We need programs in there,” said activist Charles Whiters.

“People are ready to see this long standing public policy problem solved,” said Oklahoma County Commissioner Kevin Calvey.

The District Three Commissioner says the only way to fix the long standing problems like unsanitary plumbing and infestation issues, poor medical care and staffing shortages that lead to inmate safety issues is to have a new facility.

“The biggest problem is that it is 13 stories, and when you have to put people on elevators going up and down, you certainly can’t socially distance. You can’t effectively quarantine. It’s a haven for COVID and any other infections, and it also makes it a lot more expensive to operate in terms of a facility and in staffing it requires much more staff,” said Calvey.

“Does a new bigger jail make stronger more equitable communities, I don’t think it does,” said activist Jackson Foote.

Those opposed to a new jail argued the legalities of spending federal funds on something not specifically COVID related. They also took exception with the track record of those who would be in charge of building a new jail.

“The continued pattern and practice of civil and human rights violations, the audacity to continue to violate federal and state laws does not give us the trust and faith that we need to continue investing in handing over any more money for any more structures done by this county government, which has been notorious for corruption,” said Civil and Human Rights Advocate Sara Bana.

“On the one hand, they argue that jail conditions aren’t good, but then “oh no, no, don’t spend any money to solve it,” said Calvey.

County officials say it’s up the Criminal Justice Advisory Commission and engineers to recommend the best way to build a new jail.

The 154 million must be spent in the next 5 year.

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