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Oklahoma Joe: Students seek solutions for Oklahoma County jail woes

Students at an Oklahoma City alternative school are among those seeking solutions to the issues at the Oklahoma County Jail.

They just need someone to listen.

I did recently when contacted by teacher LeAnn Skeen of Emerson South Mid-High School. Her students had read my Dec. 10 column in which I wrote that Oklahoma City and Oklahoma County must begin to address issues with the aging jail and horrible conditions within it before dreaming big about MAPS 4. Since that column, two more deaths have been reported at the jail. The latest was a 29-year-old woman awaiting an inpatient mental health treatment facility, according to The Oklahoman’s Silas Allen.

My contention is that Oklahoma County and Oklahoma City should consider building a new jail in a different location than downtown. They need to consider a separate facility to house those struggling with mental illness. They need to think differently about processing people arrested on drug, alcohol and other non-violent offenses.

Skeen’s class at first thought I wanted to tear down the old one and simply rebuild in its place. They wanted to talk. I had written about Skeen in a 2017 column. She had returned to Cameron University in 2014 at age 50. She graduated and obtained her teaching certification. Her first job was at Emerson South.

Skeen decided to pursue the project when one student told her he had lost interest in education because of being stressed about his legal problems. Several students volunteered to work during their lunch break.

They “like the idea of being part of the project that will make a difference in the community,” Skeen wrote. “It’s usually because they have been in trouble themselves, or because they have family members who have been incarcerated.”

The original class members created a PowerPoint presentation that pushes for the creation of a community justice center. They found successful examples in the Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn, New York, and a criminal justice reform program in San Joaquin County, California.

The students believe a community justice center is part of an overall approach that includes diverting those arrested for certain offenses, using bail reform to help those who cannot afford it, focusing on issues that cause people to go into the criminal justice system, and using treatment courts more to reduce recidivism that causes repeat offenses.

“Some people belong in jail, but there are too many people in jail who don’t belong there: … the poor, the marginalized and the mentally ill,” Skeen wrote.

“I do understand that the current jail in Oklahoma City is dangerously unsafe, and in urgent need of replacement because it’s falling apart. I know that the inmates are neglected and are dying because their physical and mental health needs are not being met. But by diverting arrestees to a community justice center, a huge part of the jail’s burden to provide basic needs could be relieved.

“OKC does need a jail that is equipped to meet the basic needs of inmates, but the conditions of a new jail will quickly become as bad as the current one, without innovative and effective criminal justice reform.”

Skeen should be heartened that new Oklahoma County Commissioners Carrie Blumert and Kevin Calvey said jail conditions and criminal justice reform are the most urgent issues facing the county. Both said in a separate Oklahoman story that a new jail is the best long-term solution.

Before pursuing that solution, perhaps Blumert and Calvey should listen to a teacher and a group of her students with firsthand experience, like I did. Read more at The Journal Record


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