HUGHES COUNTY, Okla. (KFOR) – After several years of failed health inspections, the Hughes County Jail officially closed its doors last week as the county figures out what to do next.
“It’s my county, it’s my responsibility, it’s my district,” said District 22 District Attorney Erick Johnson.
Johnson oversees Seminole, Hughes, and Pontotoc Counties – while a DA, he is also seen as a leader of all three.
The closure in Hughes County came just a week or so after Seminole County dealt with a ‘gang war’ in Wewoka that led to several suspects being arrested.
“Even before I got here, that jail has had several issues and failed several health inspections,” said Johnson.
The jail itself can house anywhere from 27 to 30 detainees/inmates and it sits underneath the courthouse in the heart of Holdenville.
By November 1, DA Johnson said that all of the inmates had been moved the 10 miles to Wewoka and into the Seminole County Jail with no problems. However, the problems within the Hughes Jail persist and have persisted with or without inmates.
In documents found on the Oklahoma Health Department’s website, they have inspected the Hughes County Jail several times and it has failed the past four to five years.
The Seminole County Jail which is much larger can house just under 200 inmates. According to the health department’s reports, it saw three violations during its 2022 inspection.
However, Hughes County Jail during that same year saw 48 violation inspections.
“Oh for sure, it’s got issues with its ingress and egress, it’s got plumbing issues, it’s got electrical issues,” said Johnson.
The report states that the Hughes County Jail had seven inmates shoved into a jail cell hardly meant for three people. It showed a toilet in the ‘Drunk Tank’ with urine and feces in it from some time before the inspector arrived because it wouldn’t flush.
The report also showed that during a 2021 inspection, the health department found detainees, “bedded on a floor close to a cell toilet, the base of which was wrapped with blankets to absorb leaking water.”
“We need to recognize that the Hughes County Jail as it’s currently existing is just not feasible any longer,” said Johnson. “It has been a problem and the issues have built up over years on years. Something should’ve been done a long, long time ago.”
So, what could be next for the Hughes County residents and their inmates?
In 2020, they rejected the offer to raise property taxes slightly so that the county could build a new jail. It lost by over 3/4ths of the vote throughout the county.
“This move into Seminole County gives Hughes a chance to breathe a bit,” said Johnson.
Right now, he said that the average cost a day per inmate is almost $75 in the Seminole County Jail but the trust that runs it has allowed Hughes to house their inmates at close to $50 a day.
“That, in the end, can save Hughes time as well as money until they can figure out what to do,” said Johnson.
He said that officials have discussed saving up money while inmates are in Seminole so that a new jail can be built without burdening taxpayers too much. No matter what, Johnson said the taxpayers could have seen a property tax raise if inmates stayed at the jail as it is.
“The potential lawsuits that come from something like that, is unimaginable,” said Johnson. “It would eventually come back to bite the property owners in Hughes County.”
He compared it to the situation seen at the Ottawa County Jail where a jury awarded a family $33 million after their son died from inadequate care and standards at the jail.
Security footage showed him begging for medical help for more than 20 hours before dying. An autopsy showed he died of sepsis and pneumonia. In the footage, you can hear jail staff making fun of him and threatening to shackle him to the floor.
“We cannot afford something like that and it would be hard to see,” said Johnson.
Johnson said that in about three weeks, the County Commissioner and others could possibly decide on what steps to take whether it’s saving up for a new jail or fixing the old location under the courthouse.