The rising death rate in Oklahoma’s largest county jails have contributed to making the state the second highest in the nation for jail fatalities, behind West Virginia, reports Oklahoma Watch. According to an October investigation by Reuters, 148 inmates have died from 2009 to 2019 at an average annual rate of 2.16 deaths per 1,000 inmates. The Oklahoma County Detention Center reported an especially high number of inmate deaths. From 2016 through 2019, the jail had 40 deaths and an average annual mortality rate of 4.77 deaths per 1,000 inmates. The national average is 1.46 deaths per 1,000 inmates. In the past six weeks, six inmates have died in the jail. Roughly half of the state’s jail deaths were caused by illness, a quarter by suicide, and the remainder by homicide, accident, or drug overdose. With jail and prison populations in the United States growing older, and many prisoners suffering from chronic illness and mental health conditions, in a 2017 report experts said that slow response time is the greatest contributor to inmate deaths.
Multiple Oklahoma inmates have died because staff failed to provide immediate medical assistance. In addition, state oversight of local jails is minimal. The Oklahoma State Department of Health jail services division only has the authority to investigate inmate deaths and issue misconduct reports and cannot issue fines or impose sanctions on facilities that fail to provide adequate care. And although the panel concluded that jails need to hire more mental health professionals and expand video technology, most Oklahoma jails lack the funding and resources necessary to adopt these kinds of changes, especially those in rural and urban areas. Experts and advocates recommend better mental health and suicide prevention training for current staff as well as diversion and decarceration efforts and loosening of bail restrictions for low level offenders. After loosening bail restrictions during the height of the pandemic, many state and local officials are considering permanent reforms in that area, but significant bail reform remains off the table for this legislative session.