Lawsuit Settlements Spur Oklahoma Jailhouse Reforms

By JUSTIN JUOZAPAVICIUS | December 5, 2011

After three Oklahoma counties shelled out more than $24 million to settle sexual abuse complaints brought by female inmates, professionals say a better job must be done at the county jail level to stop illicit activities.

“It’s a real bad situation and I’m as angry as anyone. It’s just unbelievable that it did occur for so long, it wasn’t just a weekend,” said Rick Littlefield, the new sheriff of Delaware County, where a typical resident could see an 18 percent hike on property taxes because of that county’s $13.5 million settlement over the alleged abuse of female prisoners. “We can’t allow this to happen on my watch.”

Since 2004, a series of allegations have surfaced involving sexual assault or rape in jails, court documents show.

But some of the scandals may have staunched if those counties would have communicated better with each other or were willing to bring in outside Oklahoma law enforcement agencies to assess potential risks and assist with problem solving.

“The risk is great out there and I would encourage the other counties to talk to their sheriffs and become involved to encourage openness and encourage some types of checks and balances that the people can see and understand,” said Eddie Wyant, district attorney for Delaware and Ottawa counties.

Instead, the people left holding the bag to pay off the settlements are the residents of these small communities -many who are barely making financial ends meet and are bracing for their property taxes to increase by at least 18 percent, which could amount to around $171 on a home valued at $100,000.

“Ain’t nobody happy around here,” said resident Kevin Waeltz, 32, who has lived all his life in the Delaware County city of Jay, population 2,500. “They should take it out of the peoples’ pockets that did it. All around town and the area, the sentiment’s pretty much the same.”

For 70-year-old Johnny Tanner, a retired meatpacker who lives on a fixed income and cares for his elderly mother, news of the potential tax increase shot through his neighborhood like a bullet.

“I think everyone in Delaware County, on the way they’re talking, it’s going to make it harder on everybody else,” he lamented.

Leon Hurt, Delaware County assessor, has been flooded with angry phone calls from residents – many on fixed incomes – who want to know why they’ll have to fork over extra.

“I have so many customers that are barely making it on their own income,” Hurt said. “For them to see this extra impact … we know they’re barely making it and we know this could be the last straw.”

Recently in Delaware County, 15 former female inmates alleged in a complaint they were raped, sexually assaulted and fondled by their jailers. The sheriff of that county, Jay Blackfox, has since resigned, but has denied any wrongdoing and isn’t accused of sexual crimes.

Former Latimer County Sheriff Melvin Holly was sentenced to 25 years for sexual crimes that occurred while he was in office. Prosecutors said he sexually abused a 19-year-old inmate in his custody in 2004 and warned her that she would “end up dead somewhere, floating face-down in a river” if she ever reported what happened to the authorities.

And in 2009, Custer County Sheriff Mike Burgess was sentenced to 79 years in prison after being charged with sexual assaults on an inmate. Prosecutors said he threatened that if she didn’t perform his required sexual favors, “she would not ever be able to see her children until after they had grown up.”

Many Oklahoma jails lack the money, technology and manpower to police their jails on a routine basis, even though the state of Oklahoma offers several law enforcement programs designed to assist sheriffs dealing with problematic inmates and avoid pitfalls like the ones in Custer, Latimer and Delaware counties.

Some officers are also lobbying for a greater oversight of law enforcement in each of Oklahoma’s 77 counties. They suggest better wages for jailers, beefed-up video surveillance, constant radio communication between jailers and headquarters while transporting female inmates through the prison and more on-site audits to spot weaknesses in the jail’s system.

“There needs to be more oversight and help to the counties in overseeing the sheriffs’ operations,” said Lyle K. Miller, Custer County commissioner, who added that the sex scandal in his territory delivered “a black eye to the whole county.” “I don’t know what that system is, it’s a work in progress, but what is a system that can help but not be intrusive?

“The counties have to do everything they can to protect themselves,” he said.

Miller’s county settled for about $10 million a lawsuit brought by more than a dozen females who accused the former sheriff and his deputies of misconduct. Holly’s county also settled, for around $670,000, with at least 16 women who alleged wrongdoing. In both bases, the settlements were assessed through property and sales taxes in those counties.

Some state-level lifelines include the Oklahoma Sheriff’s Association, which provides boot-camp-style training for newly-hired sheriffs, and the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training, which offers ethics training designed to cut off any inappropriate contact between an officer and an inmate.

“I teach people to be on guard of their ethical behavior because anybody is susceptible to breaking down ethically,” said Steve Emmons, executive director of the organization. “A person always has to be aware of the temptations.

“I know people in Delaware County, their hearts are broken, too, because this puts a terrible mark on them,” he said.

While the “vast majority of Oklahoma’s county sheriffs are good public servants dedicated to protecting our citizens, inappropriate behavior is totally unacceptable from any public official or employee,” Gov. Mary Fallin said.

“We expect more from those in a position of power, such as elected officials, and hold them to a higher standard. I believe any elected official who breaks the law should be prosecuted to the fullest extent,” she said.

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