Tulsa County Jail overcrowding violates fire code, could end up costing taxpayers

TULSA -- For nearly a year the David L. Moss Correctional Facility, known to most as the Tulsa County Jail, has been overcapacity and violating the fire code.

The situation recently came to a head when the jail stopped accepting municipal prisoners for a week.

RELATED STORY: Tulsa County Jail enacts dramatic measure (http://bit.ly/11mNKZy)

Inside the jail you can see the signs of overcrowding. Extra beds, called boats, are scattered across the floor.  Inmates or just their belongings are laying inside.

"We think it's a combination of things, we can't specifically say if it's one thing or the other but we've identified that there's a lot of people in this area being arrested for warrants," said Maj. Shannon Clark with the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office.
 
Clark says the growing population in the county could also be a factor.

Since the beginning of the year the jail's population has averaged about 1,800 inmates per day.

The maximum allowed is 1,714.

RELATED STORY: Jail overcrowding takes toll on detention officers (http://bit.ly/10pWOzW)

If a person, business or corporation violated the fire code on city property, they could face up to a $1,200 fine and even up to 90 days in jail, but the jail isn't city property.

The state fire marshal doesn't issue the same penalties.

"We don't give fines, we don't issue citations," said Joanne Sellars, asssistant state fire marshal in Oklahoma.  "We could shut down that facility, would we shut it down? Possibly.  Are we going to shut it down? Probably not."

From the state fire marshal to the state health department, penalties for the jail are not on the agenda. Finding a solution is.

"There's no easy solutions but we try to work with the facilities to get them to be in compliance," said Sellars.

Recommendations from the state health department include early release, lowering bonds and working with the judges and courts to find alternative sentences.

"We look to see whether they are taking a proactive approach because of these things are beyond their control," said John Judge, director of the Jail Division for the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

According to Clark, the sheriff's office, which operates the jail, is doing these things.

For example, the jail recently released more than 200 inmates (http://bit.ly/11OFBNx) during the week when the jail was not accepting municipal inmates.

There's also a jail population committee that meets monthly to explore possibilities.

"Some of the court clerks are looking is there a better way? Can they not come up here and pay for their warrant, let us recall the warrant so they don't have to go to jail, those are some of the things that come out in the population committee meeting," said Clark.

Further action may be needed.

"If this is a just a normal thing for them to be overcrowded they need to make more room," said Sellars.
         
No agency can force the jail to expand but Clark says it is something that's been brought up often.
    
He says the jail is constructed with the option for additions.

"This is something that we've been working toward for quite sometime, now it's come to a reality we need to start focusing on what it's really going to cost to do that, what's going to be the most expeditious way to do that and then how do we do that, where does the money come from," said Clark.

It's not going to be cheap and it will likely go to a taxpayer vote.

"The cost of the expansion is going to be pretty significant," said Clark.

There could even be plans already drawn up since officials at the state health department say they've seen them.

"They showed the plans to my jail inspector, it depends on what the trust authority has to say," said Judge.

The Jail Trust Authority, which actually owns the jail, created a task force to address the issue.

Discussions about expanding and where the funding would come from are expected to come up.

It could be something tax payers will get a chance to weigh in on.

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