OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – The head of the Oklahoma County Detention Center was heard in a recording lauding the impact COVID-19 has had on the jail, saying “COVID is our friend,” according to NonDoc Media.
NonDoc obtained a voicemail recording in which Jail Administrator Greg Williams says that the COVID-19 pandemic is the “greatest thing that has ever happened” to the jail and that it was a “built-in excuse” to keep members of the media out of the jail, which has had myriad problems over the past few years.
The voicemail, in which Williams is heard making the comments is included in an article on NonDoc’s website. You can listen to the entire recording on the NonDoc site.
Williams and Mark Opgrande, Director of Communications for the Detention Center, are both heard in the recording.
The administrator says in the recording that COVID has been “wonderful” for the jail, noting the $10 million in CARES Act funding the jail received last year.
Williams mentions that the money was used to pay for improvements to the jail’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system and other plumbing infrastructure.
Opgrande concurs, saying the jail could potentially receive another $150 million in federal funds.
“That would be the best thing that would happen out of this,” Opgrande says. Williams is then heard agreeing with Opgrande, saying “COVID is our friend.”
Williams released the following statement to KFOR when asked about his remarks in the recording:
“We regularly host media inside the jail and requests are always evaluated with safety, availability of staff and appropriateness of the request in mind. In this situation, a French reporter was working on a documentary about women in prisons; since we’re a jail we were trying to identify a facility that was a better fit for the story.
Additionally, COVID-19 has presented safety concerns throughout the pandemic, requiring us to limit access to visitors. I regret the insensitive nature of our comments recorded in an unguarded moment and recognize the hurt and pain this pandemic has caused. I apologize for any offense or discomfort our words caused.
As evidenced by our recent report on cases in the jail, we take COVID-19 mitigation matters seriously and will continue to do so. Federal funding in response to COVID has provided the jail much-needed resources to improve conditions for our detainees and employees. We have utilized those funds and implemented COVID-19 protocols effectively – as of Monday we only had one active COVID-19 case among detainees and one among employees. We will continue to prioritize the safety of people in our care.”GREG WILLIAMS, OKLAHOMA COUNTY JAIL ADMINISTRATOR
Jim Couch, Jail Trust Chairman, also released a statement regarding the remarks. That statement is as follows:
“We are disappointed in these comments, but we know how hard this team has worked to improve conditions at the jail for detainees, staff and vendors. Funding in response to COVID has been beneficial in addressing new challenges from the pandemic and improving long-standing infrastructure issues. The jail trust prioritizes the safety and wellbeing of those in the jail’s custody and we are pleased that the spread of COVID has been limited. We remain committed to transparency and openness.”JIM COUCH, JAIL TRUST CHAIRMAN
The jail has had many problems, problems that jail administrators say they’ve been working to overcome.
Jail officials provided a corrective action plan to the Oklahoma State Department of Health in January, following an OSDH inspection of the jail.
OSDH officials inspected the jail Oct. 21-23, following myriad complaints of extreme neglect and unsanitary conditions from inmates and their families.
KFOR has heard from dozens of inmates over the past two years who’ve said they’ve had trouble getting their medications, at times were not fed on time and some showed large bed bug bites all over their bodies.
The jail also had a riot and hostage situation on March 27, 2021, that resulted in a detention officer stabbed and an inmate killed. Inmates stole the officer’s smart phone during the riot and used it to livestream on Facebook. They complained about no water pressure and other poor conditions at the jail, during the livestream.
There have also been several inmate medical deaths at the jail.
And then there was the alleged ‘Baby Shark’ torture.
Two former detention officers and their supervisor were charged with cruelty for allegedly forcing inmates to listen to the children’s song ‘Baby Shark’ repeatedly for hours at a time while remaining handcuffed and standing.
“The deficiencies spotted by Health Department auditors are important. We recognize that reform of the jail and its operations is not complete and that more needs to be done, and we are glad to say we have already made several multiple improvements which have provided clear benefits,” said Greg Williams, CEO Oklahoma County Detention Center. “We remain committed to improving operations and conditions at OCDC to prioritize the health and safety of its employees and persons in custody. We are committed to working with outside partners to resolve every issue and solve every problem.”
The Jail Trust took control of jail operations on July 1, 2020. The Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office previously managed the jail.
Jail officials issued a news release in January, crediting the Jail Trust with taking steps to improve jail conditions, saying the HVAC has been overhauled to allow fresh air throughout the jail, reduce mold spores and provide better temperature control.
However, a local woman spoke with KFOR in January, saying her son, an inmate, contacted her and told her that the jail had freezing temperatures. She said her son told her that jail staff did not care about inmate wellbeing.
KFOR contacted jail officials and were told that the heat was working properly inside the jail.
Jail officials also said in January that food service improvements were accomplished after the jail contracted with Summit Food Service to serve meals which meet the standard of the American Corrections Center.
“Under previous management, the kitchen was excessively dirty and many of the appliances were not in working order. As a result of the contract with Summit, the kitchen was completely overhauled,” jail officials said.
Officials also said significant improvements were made by replacing the jails “outdated, rusted” water system, which provided very little hot water in many places, with a “new, digital, on-demand hot water system [that] helps OCDC operate a cleaner and healthier facility.”
Oklahoma County Commissioner Carrie Blumert, District 1, spoke with KFOR in January about progress she saw at the jail during an inspection.
“When I walked in, I immediately noticed that the building smelled better than it normally does. I can tell that the staff had put a lot of effort into cleaning and sanitizing and making sure it’s much cleaner than it typically had been,” Blumert told News 4.
Blumert said she spoke with two inmates and they did not complain about conditions.
“I pulled two detainees out and asked each detainee individually, ‘Do you have what you need? Do you have a bed? Do you have your medications? Have you had food at the right times?’” she said. “Both detainees said that they had everything they needed, which I was very happy to hear.”
A plan for a new jail is in the works after a recent vote by county commissioners. However, how the nearly $300 million dollar facility will be funded is still up in the air.
Below is the corrective action plan jail officials provided to OSDH: