Officials Look for Ways to Make Space at Oklahoma Jail

OKLAHOMA CITY — County officials are looking at ways to reduce a proposed $391 million price tag for a new Oklahoma County Adult Detention Center.

The proposed facility is one of two options the county is considering to replace or repair its current detention center, a 20-year-old jail that is expensive to operate and staff and does not address the county’s inmate overcrowding problem, says County Commissioner Ray Vaughn.

“Our biggest problem is understaffing,” Vaughn says. “Our current jail facility is designed in such a way that it’s somewhat staff intensive.”

The new jail or a proposed $436 million renovation of the current facility would provide “more efficient, better designed and less staff intensive” solutions, he says.

Architectural firm Frankfurt-Short-Bruza Associates, of Oklahoma City, is spearheading design efforts for the two options.

Of the costs to renovate the current jail, $120 million is needed to bring the building up to code and make it ADA compliant. A new annex outlined in the plan would bring the facility to 1.3 million square feet.

A 2008 report issued by the U.S. Department of Justice says the current facility is understaffed and overcrowded and the size of the jail’s cells do not meet federal requirements for more than one inmate. The jail’s current ration of one officer per 50 inmates is not efficient, the report states.

Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel says the current facility was built using value engineering and says cost reductions resulted in several poor design features.

“We did learn a lot by going back and looking at what happened,” Whetsel says. “Whatever we do, we want to make sure we’ll have something that will last and is preplanned to handle the next 15 or 20 years.”

The current facility has 1,200 cells, space for the Sheriff’s Department and a capacity for 2,212 inmates, a population that requires 490 employees. Beds are currently rented out to the state to help cover operating costs.

County officials estimate the county will need to accommodate 3,700 inmates by 2027, a population that would require 400 additional employees to staff the facility. A more efficient facility would address this problem, Vaughn says.

A proposed new facility would combine the sheriff’s office, intake center, laundry and food services area, warehouse and social support in a 1.1-million-square-foot facility.

The proposed jail would be built on a 50-acre site within five miles of downtown. However, Vaughn says the $391 million cost of a new facility would be difficult for residents to swallow.

“That’s probably more than we can afford, so we’re trying to do what we can to get it down,” Vaughn says.

He says costs are likely going to have to be slightly more than half of what has been proposed for the new jail plan to gain public acceptance. A citizens advisory committee is reviewing the plans providing input.

“There’s some things that we can do that will allow us to probably bring the cost down without jeopardizing the projects,” Vaughn says.

The county is considering a sales tax increase of one-half to five-eighths of a cent to cover the cost of construction. Once construction is completed, that figure would drop to cover operations.

The county hopes to have a finalized plan by the end of this year, which would allow for a sales tax vote next spring, and then a vote on the bonds necessary to pay for the facility, says Vaughn. If approved, the county doesn’t expect to begin construction for another two years, he adds, and the facility would likely not be operational until late 2012 or mid-2013.

“We’ve got some significant hurdles to scale,” Vaughn says.