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INVESTIGATES: Former Washington Co. Jail administrator alleges jail unsafe, files suit

Posted at 2:43 PM, Nov 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-13 23:52:06-05

BARTLESVILLE, Okla. — A former Washington County Jail assistant administrator filed a lawsuit against Sheriff Scott Owen claiming wrongful termination.

Former assistant jail administrator Paul Greene says he was fired for bringing hundreds of policy violations to the attention of his superiors.

“I'm seeing that the failure on law enforcement leadership that have sworn an oath to defend and protect and uphold the laws are ignoring and violating these laws and these people are being hurt by it,” Greene said.

He claims when he tried to fix things or address them with the Sheriff, the Washington County Commissioners, and the district attorney, he was ignored.

Greene worked at the jail from December 2017 to January 2019.

“People were being hurt by these violations and not only were civil rights being violated but the citizens of Washington County, were exposed to unnecessary risks of financial lawsuits for the ramifications of these violations,” Greene said.

He told 2 Works for You's Erin Conrad he wants accountability and change at the Washington County Jail.

“I can't stand by. I swore an oath to protect people and I can't stand by knowing what I know, and not take action to get the word out,” Greene said.

Greene contacted 2 Works for You about his concerns and provided pages upon pages of what he claims are policy violations, accounts of misconduct, and violations of state and federal law.

Greene said he tried to alert his chain of command to the problems and claims nothing was done.

Greene said when he was fired he contacted the Oklahoma State Department of Health, the Oklahoma attorney general, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, and the FBI.

In those complaints, he wrote, “Serious suicide attempts, serious injuries to both officers and inmates, major damage to the jail, and apparently even a prisoner escape were not being reported to the Oklahoma State Department of Health as is required by state law.“

2 Works for You requested the inspection records from the OSDH for the Washington County Jail from the last five years.

In the 2019 inspection report for the jail, it was cited for three incidents that match up with the allegations Greene made in his complaints.

Steven Staley is a former jailer who also worked at the jail around the time Greene served as Assistant Administrator and said he also saw violations that made him uncomfortable.

“They had significant damage to the facility. Because of this attempted escape. And they ended up having to close that particular pod down for a period of time. Never was reported to the State,” Staley said.

Staley said he left his job as a jailer shortly after Greene was fired.

“I had to. I had to leave and do something else. I saw too many things that bothered me,” Staley said.

Both men said they were disturbed by the lack of accountability for those in power.

When 2 Works for You dug deeper into that problem investigators found there are few avenues for reporting violations within the jail to outside agencies.

OSDH is one of the few state entities that have some amount of oversight. However, the enforcement capabilities are limited when infractions are found.

“If we cite a deficiency, based on the standard. Then we provide them a statement of deficiencies, and by the requirements for our program, we're required to provide them a plan of correction. Now they do not have to follow the plan of correction, they, they can, you know, do something else. Then they have 60 days to correct . If the deficiency hasn't been corrected. Then we do have the records for the commissioner, I sent you the standard the commissioner can lodge a complaint with the attorney general's office and/or the district attorney,” said Barry Edwards, OSDH Director of Jail Programs.

Most complaints made by employees or inmates go through the sheriff by the chain of command. Any complaints that don’t fall under the OSDH can be reported to the county or the district attorney.

Despite those avenues, the lack of outside enforcement is what Greene said he found most troubling.

“My boss knew that his failure, failure to report injuries to officers and inmates his failure to report serious suicide attempts, that there's no not going to be any financial or any monetary or any type of recourse against them for violating those laws,” Greene said.

Wanda Bertram is with the Prison Policy Initiative and said lack of outside accountability in local jails is a widespread issue.

“The problem of negligent oversight over county jails is is absolutely not limited to Oklahoma. When there aren't parties outside the jail or the jail system that are working to hold these facilities accountable or shine a light on what's going on," Bertram said. "Then people who are on the inside, who have so much power you know to see and report on what's going on. They really don't have many options."

We reached out to the Oklahoma attorney general's office and it said it does not typically investigate jail complaints. The OSBI said while agents can take on investigations into county jails they typically have to be invited by the DA or sheriff.

2 Works for You also reached out to the Washington County sheriff who is accused of ignoring these allegations by Greene.

“I just felt like, since you felt it necessary to reach out, it is my obligation as an elected official, to try to answer the questions that you had for me," Sheriff Scott Owen said.

He's been in office since January 2019 but he’s worked at the jail since 2010 when he retired from Bartlesville police. Owen is being sued by Greene for wrongful termination claiming he was retaliated against by Sheriff Owen for reporting violations to him.

“I cannot discuss the litigation at all. Some of the things I've learned that were listed I never even knew about,” Sheriff Owen said.

While the sheriff would not talk about the lawsuit, he did answer questions about the facility. When asked if his staff are abiding by state law, and by the policy in the Washington County jail this is what he had to say:

”Yes we are. We operate by the state and are held to state standards, and we have written policy as well. And that policy has been set ever since I took over and has been reviewed, making updates and we're currently continuing updates and having it reviewed by a third party legal administrator,“ Owen said.

Owen allowed 2 Works for You to take a look at some parts of the jail facility but not where the inmates are housed due to the jail’s COVID-19 restrictions.

When asked about the OSDH report that matched up with some of Greene’s allegations this is what he said:

“Well, we have a very strict policy on suicide watches and things of that nature in reporting. We have since expanded turnover and staff back there I have new jail administrators system administrators in place. Place key people in key positions basically and we're operating with the common GL standards division status factors,” Owen said.

Sheriff Owen claimed he was unaware of the allegations made by Greene and said if employees need to report something they can.

“If an employee has a complaint, they are to bring it by policy through their chain of command and unless their next chain of command is the problem and then they should jump that chain to the next higher up authority, and that could even be done through, going to the undersheriff,the sheriff, or even to the district attorney's office,“ Owen said.

That’s the same procedure that Greene said got him fired.

Sheriff Owen said working in a jail is not for the faint of heart and many jailers and administrators are not cut out for the demands of the job.

2 Works for You also asked if inmates are unsafe in jail.

“No, they are not. This facility is, we pride ourselves on taking good care of them. Obviously, we're going to get complaints once a while and we may not get to them as quick as they want to (but) any life-threatening situations (are) dealt with immediately, medical situations dealt with per medical policy and that's a priority with us,” Owen said.

Sheriff Owen’s attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit this month but a judge denied it.

The lawsuit is currently still moving forward.

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