by ACLU Staffers: Candace Liger, Amy Gioletti, and Nicole McAfee
If the “Tussle at the Tower,” the final debate between candidates for Oklahoma County Sheriff, taught us anything, it’s that desperately needed reforms for the Oklahoma County Jail will not likely come from the next occupant of the Sheriff’s office. The three candidates, (acting) Sheriff P.D. Taylor (R), Oklahoma County Sergeant Mike Hanson (D), and former Canadian County Undersheriff Ed Grimes (I), discussed inmates, felons, and prisoners, but rarely broke with tired talking points and status quo policies.
With an excess of 2,000 folks locked in cages in the Oklahoma County Jail on any given day, the conditions of the jail are significant, and far-reaching, for families in Oklahoma County. The people we lock away are sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, mothers, fathers, colleagues, and friends.
In Oklahoma County, where the rate of female incarceration is higher than the national average, women face unacceptable conditions. During a recent forum, a former female detainee at the Oklahoma County Jail recounted to the lack of access to feminine hygiene products in the jail, even being told at one point to sit on the toilet and wait for it to be over. In response to this story, acting Sheriff Taylor stated that he was unaware of the problem and committed to exploring the issue on Monday morning. Candidate Hanson suggested he found the claim hard to believe, stating women who wanted feminine hygiene products should simply make a request for them, and that request would be granted.
During Wednesday’s Tussle, upon being pressed by Moderator Tres Savage of NonDoc, Acting Sheriff Taylor stated he followed up with appropriate jail staff and the lack of feminine hygiene products was not a problem after all. How he arrived at this conclusion seems unclear, but one would hope that he is not relying on jail guards to self-report their refusal to stock and distribute the necessary products to the women they are jailing. In case any of the attendees forgot that all of the candidates are men, Hanson’s and Grimes’s answers offered no sense of urgency for real change in the inhumane conditions experienced by the women locked in the Oklahoma County Jail.
The final question at the “Tussle” provided each candidate the opportunity to discuss Black Lives Matter, and how each would foster relationships between law enforcement and black communities in Oklahoma County. Tellingly, no candidate directly answered the question. In fact, Candidate Grimes responded that all lives matter and “black is just a color in a box of crayons.” Acting Sheriff Taylor agreed with Grimes that “all lives matter.” Candidate Hanson responded that he worked with black people who were present in the courtroom during the Holtzclaw trial.
No one even mentioned the significant racial disparities of the incarcerated population in the Oklahoma County Jail. Blacks are overrepresented in the jail; the African-American population in Oklahoma County is 15%, but the African-American inmate population of the jail is at least 40% of the total inmate population on any given day. Additionally, Blacks carry a greater share of debt to the criminal justice system, in the forms of fines and fees, in Oklahoma County, which makes it more likely that African-Americans will be re-incarcerated for failure to pay, incurring additional fines and fees, in the Groundhog Day that has become our criminal justice system.
We know all too well that the collateral consequences of incarceration span the gamut of social and economic opportunities. These facts are not hidden; indeed, they were acknowledged by the Oklahoma City Chamber’s Criminal Justice Task Force in a comprehensive report providing recommendations for criminal justice reform in the City and County less than nine months ago. Any candidate for sheriff should be taking a close look at the data and recommendations in front of them.
In this debate and earlier forums, the candidates offer voters varying degrees of continuity and slight variations on more of the same. While this crop of candidates does not seem poised to disrupt a broken and miserable system of jail administration, we are reminded that the voters of Oklahoma County have an opportunity to hold those in charge of our criminal justice system accountable. Perhaps the larger problem here is that Oklahoma law severely narrows the field of individuals who can serve as Sheriff to those individuals who have served as law enforcement officers for at least four years. Candidate Hanson cited the need to do away with the “good ol’ boy” system numerous times during the Tussle. In fact, our state law state law is drafted to all but guarantee that candidates for one of the most important positions in our society will be insiders who have made their careers in a system that they have little incentive, inclination, or insight to reform.
On July 14th, we sent a questionnaire to each of the sheriff candidates requesting their positions regarding many of the issues the next sheriff will inherit. After multiple attempts, PD Taylor did not submit responses. You can view the other candidates’ responses here.