An Oklahoma sheriff and nearly all of her staff resigned this week, defying a district judge’s reported orders to reopen a county jail that has been closed and evacuated over safety issues.
Nowata County Sheriff Terry Sue Barnett told reporters on Monday that she could not “in good conscience” bring prisoners back to the Nowata County Jail, despite threats of being held in contempt of court. Neither could the county’s undersheriff, deputies, the head of the department’s dispatch and most of the jail staff, who also tendered their resignations on the same day. Even the canine ranger stepped down, according to Barnett, who added the dog had “resigned with his paw print.”
As of Tuesday, only five employees remain on staff, including dispatchers who are redirecting calls to neighboring emergency and law enforcement agencies, Tulsa World reported.
“The condition of the jail is such that it does not comply with constitutional standards,” Barnett said, reading off a litany of hazards within the facility, starting with a carbon monoxide leak that led to the shutdown on Feb. 28.
Barnett explained that the cause of the toxic gas emissions, which sent four employees to an emergency room and prompted the removal of more than a dozen inmates to a nearby jail, has still not been determined.
“The carbon monoxide level was an 18 when tested by the Nowata Fire Department. Lethal level is 20,” she said.
Additionally, Barnett said exposed electrical wires throughout the jail have caused inmates to be shocked while showering, mold is “exposing both prisoners and employees to hazardous conditions,” and improperly installed plumbing allows methane gas to permeate the jail.
Since the carbon monoxide leak Barnett has been adamant about her refusal to return inmates to what she called an “inadequately budgeted” facility with a “bare minimum staff” without a full inspection. In a Facebook post dated March 2, she wrote, “I cannot morally or legally endanger the prisoners’ lives by housing them in the Nowata County Jail until it has been determined to be absolutely safe.”
She added: “The Nowata County Commissioners, who are responsible for the upkeep of the entire building, have been advised and are aware of the situation and are working on possible solutions.”
In an update on March 14, Barnett wrote, “We also realize that re-opening the jail in its current unsafe condition could put Nowata County at risk of multiple law suits, which would cause everyone’s taxes to go up, along with still being in the same situation that we are now, with a non-functioning jail.”
She told reporters on Monday that District Judge Carl Gibson had been pressuring her to resume operations at the jail, threatening to hold her in contempt of court if she did not comply, despite the fact that her complaints about hazardous conditions hadn’t been addressed.
Tulsa World reports, “A court minute states that ‘it is this court’s option (sic) that the state requires the sheriff to operate the jail and is aware of the jail’s condition.’ ”
The judge has not responded to a request for comment from NPR.
A standoff between the two elected officials culminated with Barnett’s resignation, which Gibson refused to acknowledge, but which was accepted by the county commissioners.
“When I was elected I said I would do the right thing,” she said on Monday. “I was hopeful to see change in Nowata County, but now I see without support it is only continuing to create a dangerous situation.”
Barnett was elected sheriff in November over incumbent Interim Sheriff Kenny Freeman, who was arrested a month before voters went to the polls for felony embezzlement.
Tulsa World reports the sheriff’s department has been plagued by scandal and turmoil for several years.
On Monday Barnett said a “good old boy” mentality ruled the county, preventing real change from taking root. “Instead of looking for solutions, many would prefer to hope and pray that nothing will happen,” Barnett said. “I, too, hope and pray that nothing happens — that our prisoners remain safe wherever they are,” she added.
Judge Gibson held an administrative hearing on Tuesday to determine the financial impact on Nowata County of housing inmates at the Washington County Jail.
Nowata is the third poorest county in Oklahoma, with a total operating budget of less $1 million, KJRH reported.
At the time of the leak, Nowata County Commissioner Burke LaRue “removed his personal carbon monoxide detector from his residence and installed it” in the dispatch area, according to a sheriff’s department Facebook post.
“The Nowata County Jail is a ticking time bomb of constitutional liability,” Barnett’s attorney, Paul DeMuro, said in an emailed statement to NPR. “If the County thinks it has budget problems now, it better wake up because somebody is going to die in that jail.”
Throughout the press conference on Monday Barnett expressed regret for quitting before realizing a transformation of the department, and said she had made several staffing and inmate changes to offset the budget shortfalls. But, believing she was being asked to disregard the inmates’ safety, Barnett said, “I informed him that under no circumstances will I shove anything under the carpet concerning Nowata County.”
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