Oklahoma County Jails Expire Amid Location Uncertainty

Oklahoma County managed to convince voters to approve a bond to build a new jail to replace the troubled prison, but the issue of where to locate it caused controversy and stalled the debt issuance.

The county intends to replace the 13-story Oklahoma City Correctional Center, which opened in 1991, with a new facility that would house psychiatric treatment and treatment.

On Monday, the Board of Commissioners approved up to $5 million to purchase land in Oklahoma City for the project in a 2-to-1 vote, with the expectation that a mental health center would initially be built there, funded with $50 million under the soon-to-expire American Rescue Plan Act.

Finding a location for a bond-financed replacement facility for the troubled Oklahoma County Detention Center in downtown Oklahoma City has delayed a further $260 million general obligation debt issuance approved by voters in 2022 after an initial $45 million sale last year .

Oklahoma County Detention Center

On May 21, Oklahoma City Council members voted overwhelmingly to deny a special permit to authorize a jail on the site near neighboring Del City, with Mayor David Holt casting the lone vote in favor of the permit.

“It will probably have to go to court if we decide on this site,” County Board Chairman Brian Maughan told The Bond Buyer last week. “For now, at least, we’re going to build a mental health center.”

Before the County Council vote, Del City Mayor Floyd Eason said residents were in favor of keeping the jail in downtown Oklahoma City.

“You are not listening to the voters,” he told the board.

Other speakers raised allegations of corruption, proposed an alternative location, anticipated litigation or pushed for renovations to the current prison. The People’s Council for Justice Reform, which opposes the county jail plan, said in a May 30 statement that it continues to “believe that (the Board of County Commissioners) has made progress without a detailed, specific plan on how much jail time will cost.” , where it will be built, who will oversee the mental health center, and how much it will cost to finance the operations of both the prison and the mental health center.

According to Maughan, the final cost of the project, projected to be $316 million, will depend on the project’s location and its inflationary effects.

“I would expect that whatever we do, we will have to build in phases as we can afford,” he said.

Despite reservations about the project’s costs and the need for more restorative justice measures instead of incarceration, the county commission put $260 million in general obligation bonds on the June 28, 2022 ballot. The the measure passed with 59.3% of the votes.

A county of approximately 800,000 people, the largest in Oklahoma, sold for $45 million authorized debt in 2023 in transactions with serial maturities between 2025 and 2033.

Now the clock is ticking to spend 85% of the proceeds from the bond sale within three years, Maughan said, adding that some of the funds were used to pay for architectural work and field drilling.

As for issuing the rest of the voter-authorized bonds, Maughan said that would happen “whenever we find a place that we can certainly build on.”

Problems at the prison are also fueling the need for a new facility.

“We have been under fire from the Department of Justice for a long time,” Maughan said. “There’s definitely pressure.”

Under a 2009 memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Department of Justice, the county agreed to take steps to improve conditions at the jail with the expectation that in four years the facility would be renovated or work would begin to replace or expand it.

In 2008, the Justice Department reported unsafe, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions at the prison, as well as inadequate health care and mental health care. The Oklahoma County Correctional Trust took over management of the facility in 2020 and has made some improvements.

A March 2023 report by an Oklahoma multi-county grand jury convened to investigate prison operations recommended that the Oklahoma County Jail Authority self-disband with the governor’s approval and return oversight of the facility to the county sheriff. She cited dozens of prisoner deaths, as well as health and financial problems.

The report, which did not recommend closing the jail, cited transferring the bond to a new facility, noting that the grand jury believed “some of the problems (the detention center) has encountered are directly related to the poor design of the jail and a facility that has failed to adequately serve the community throughout its debilitated lifespan.”

There were 663,100 inmates in local jails in mid-2022, a 4% increase from the same period in 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in December. There were about 3 thousand of them public local prisons as of 2019, with the lion’s share of facilities in counties.

About 500 miles south of Oklahoma City, a nearly $153 million tax-exempt bond is scheduled to be appraised this week, 10 years after Chambers County, Texas, began its effort to create a new jail and justice center.

October report by the Vera Institute for Justice, which advocates for “fair for all” justice and immigration systems, examined the needs and costs of incarceration.

Bea Halbach-Singh, a senior research fellow at the institute, said county officials took steps in 2016 and 2017 to hold a GO bond election for the project but later withdrew from seeking voter approval in the face of some opposition social versus costs.

Instead, the county of 46,000 east of Houston created the Chambers County Justice Center Public Facilities Corporation, a nonprofit organization that does not have tax authority to issue rental revenue bonds that will be repaid with county funds. County officials did not respond to emailed questions.

S&P Global Ratings said the AA-minus rating with a stable debt outlook is one notch below the county’s GO rating because corporate lease payments are subject to annual appropriation.

The initial official announcement shows that the bonds in the Piper Sandler-led transaction have serial maturities from 2025 to 2055 along with the forward bond.

Proceeds will fund a $79 million, 104,000-square-foot, single-story jail that can accommodate 336 inmates, as well as a justice center annex with four additional courtrooms and a law enforcement center with a crime lab and expanded evidence processing and storage, according to an online investor presentation regarding the transaction. The entire project, to be built in the Anahuac County seat, is estimated to cost $166 million, not including financing costs.

Vera analysts say they have seen structures using specially created nonprofit issuers to finance prisons elsewhere.

“There’s actually a lot that communities can do to reduce their jail population and, in some ways, avoid having to build a new facility,” Halbach-Singh said, pointing to options such as putting fewer people in jail pre-trial, addressing high bail rates or creating a formal mechanism pre-trial release.