The Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority (Jail Trust) was created in 2019 with the intention of taking over operations of the County Jail from the Oklahoma County Sheriff after years of neglect and human rights violations. While this idea was long in coming, the execution has left much to be desired. Oklahoma City Free Press has terrific coverage from inception until today about their various fits and starts.
Emails, recently obtained by Oklahoma Progress Now, confirm and expand upon what has been reported in the media with regard to the transition from the Sheriff to the Jail Trust as well as the attempt to divert nearly all of our CARES Act money to the county jail. Email communication was requested via an Open Records Request from county elected officials, the Jail Trust and jail administration concerning the transition to the new body as well as communications regarding CARES Act monies from the time period of the start of the pandemic until late September.
The Jail Trust is off to a rough start. First, there was the slow, winding and often rocky transition from the Sheriff to the Trust. Next, Brian Maughan and Kevin Calvey are diverting more than $40M of CARES Act funds to the Jail, in spite of a raging pandemic in the community. The pair also has an obsession with using County resources to terrorize immigrants with ICE. Lastly, in the first month of taking over, the jail revealed a bed bug infestation, had an escape by several people being held there and had its first COVID outbreak.
The emails reveal a board that is in over its head and a County elected government all to happy to pass the buck or enable bad actors. Few ideas originate from the Jail Trust and little of the promised change is visible anywhere. Current County elected officials with years of experience about how government works and decades of institutional knowledge drug their feet or actively worked to undermine the Trust. Kevin Calvey is a central player as he sits on both the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) and the Jail Trust. He also pushes to skirt rules, make up new ones and get public money for his desired projects often at strenuous objection by other leaders and the public.
Most Oklahoma County positions are up for election in 2020. Every county elected official has played a role in this and while the Trust is mostly private citizens, elected leaders appoint members to the Trust, set the process in motion and ultimately have the authority to authorize funds or not. County elected leaders (Calvey and Maughan) are who voted to give the Jail Trust 90%+ of the County's CARES Act money. County elected leaders (Calvey and Maughan) are currently trying to force them to work with ICE, despite both the Jail Trust and District Attorney seeming to oppose it. Of the latter two issues, Brian Maughan's vote is the swing vote that supported Kevin Calvey's outsized role on the Trust, it is the vote that is getting them the CARES money and that is trying to bind them to collaborate with ICE. Without Maughan, Calvey would not have been able to cause the chaos he has.
We will describe the Jail Trust timeline below. Recently acquired emails from the trust members reveal ignorance about the specifics of running a jail, a reliance on how business has always been done, a series of self-inflicted tight deadlines for getting things done, slow reaction to the pandemic and its disruptions and an increasingly arrogant consolidation of power and money all while the bad news continues piling up.
Jail Trust Created
In the Summer of 2019, the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) voted to create the Jail Trust. The central argument for the creation of the Jail Trust was that a new, independent body, not the elected Sheriff, was needed to solve many of the long standing crises with the Oklahoma County Jail. The Jail Trust's official takeover date was July 1, 2020 but since its inception, there has been tension in its make up, its authority and its plan for the future. While Commissioner Carrie Blumert, elected in 2018, ran on a platform of criminal justice reform, has professional experience in providing social services and was the main point person who put together the MAPS 4 proposal on mental health that passed by a wide margin, it was Calvey who got appointed. Calvey is one of five other lawyers on the Jail Trust and Brian Maughan was the deciding vote to send Calvey to represent the BOCC on the Trust. The current members are: Kevin Calvey, Commissioner, P.D. Taylor, Oklahoma County Sheriff, Francie Ekwerekwu, District 1, Ben Brown, District 2, Todd Lamb, District 3, Sue Ann Arnall, At-Large, M.T. Berry, At-Large, Jim Couch, At-Large, Vice-Chair, and Tricia Everest, At-Large, Chair
Early on, the Oklahoma County Sheriff displayed dismay about the eventual handoff. The Jail is the largest single item in Oklahoma County's budget and obviously the administrator of the Jail holds a great deal of importance. The Sheriff, a permanent member of the Jail Trust, was unhappy with the entire development. After years of questionable management but also continued challenges from federal investigations as well as poor initial construction, the Sheriff is still law enforcement for Oklahoma County, they just no longer have to deal with the headaches of the jail. The current (and former) Sheriff has frequently mentioned how funding issues, along with poor construction, are what led to so many problems at the Jail. Instead of embracing this change and seizing an unusual opportunity, the Sheriff has ranged from overtly hostile to the process to completely disconnected. Media coverage and emails show the Sheriff has long quit trying to become part of the solution and instead join the list of problems at the County Jail.
On August 31st, the Sheriff sent his official resignation from both the Jail Trust and CJAC (the Criminal Justice Advisory Council, an advisory group that contains many of the most powerful, connected people in the city), even though it is debatable whether he can actually do that. Instead of lending his expertise on a problem he was soon to be absolved of, the Sheriff obstructed or ignored the handover. That said, the Trust has done itself few favors and other County elected leaders seem more content to watch than intervene. From the summer of 2019 until the start of the year, painfully slow progress had occurred. A Jail administrator was hired in November of 2019, but with the holidays and getting hired, little seemed to occur until early 2020.
In the early days, there was significant struggle to even get meetings scheduled (email). As the deadline to transition approached, emails reveal that many basic operations questions were still being answered. From finances (email) to payroll (email) to operations and even a study on risk analysis (email), many decisions were still in flux as 2020 got started and further complicated when the pandemic hit. By June 2020, Trust leaders were still asking basic operational and procedural questions of County elected leaders about what they could and could not do. Nearly all of the contracts signed by the Jail Trust are continuations of contracts signed by the Sheriff. These include service contracts for telephones, commissary and medical services (alone nearly 20% of the jail's budget). The phone and commissary both include draconian fees and huge commissions (kickbacks) for the jail that are passed on the families of the incarcerated, often people being held pretrial because they cannot afford bail. The medical provider, Turnkey, part owned by OKC State Representative Jon Echols, was forced to answer horrifying questions about how they deal with mental health emergencies as recently as a September 21st meeting.
With the Sheriff completely withdrawn and many other county elected officials sitting on their hands, Calvey went to work manipulating the process. The lease to rent the County owned building that is the County Jail was manipulated by Kevin Calvey to remove jail standards that they might be held to (email--->). These sorts of efforts just show what they care about. It is about looking out for themselves, not the people in the jail.
After March and per the emails linked above, the poor planning by the Trust became even more apparent. Consultants were hired to evaluate where they were at. The County slowed by the lockdowns and the Trust's lack of urgency were forced to scurry in June to get the contracts mentioned above signed as well as approve the basic structures needed to run a Jail that has thousands of people moving in and out each week. Despite promising a change in direction, they maintain the same contracts, procedures and now seek to use CARES money to plug the many holes that have existed for years.
On July 1, 2020, the Jail Trust officially took over.
CARES money, ICE and continued challenges at the Jail
While in the midst of trying to manage a challenging takeover of the jail, Calvey, Maughan and other members of the budget board maneuvered to get CARES Act money to the jail. Emails show they have the cart completely ahead of the horse. On August 10th, a series of emails between Chairwoman Everest and Calvey confirm he was pulling the idea of transferring all the CARES money to the jail from a US Treasury Department guideline from months earlier. It also shows that he intends to effectively launder the money using emergency CARES funding to replace previously budgeted funds so they can be used on capital improvements (Step 1 and Step 2, he calls them in emails from August 10th). Oklahoma Progress Now has emailed officials at the Treasury Department for clarification and have not received a response.
All this justification as well as cost estimates and other supporting documents for requesting the CARES Act money comes mere days before the August 19th vote that Calvey (and Maughan) orchestrated to move the money. This culminated in a vote that happened in 47 seconds at the start of a meeting before Commissioner Blumert had even entered the room. Some of their justification or budget numbers came in the weeks AFTER the vote, including engaging an architect about possible work at the jail (based on the August 31st email here).
(Update 10/25) After we published this, several folks sent us information that has not been widely reported or previously know. First, on September 2, 2020, the Treasury Department issued revised guidelines that more or less echo the email below. At the bottom of the first page it says you cannot do what Calvey proposes (revenue replacement). Additionally, on September 16, 2020, District Attorney Prater also gave an informal opinion against Calvey's proposal.
Plans for any funds or even what their priorities need to be are being invented as they go. A list of projects from the Jail Administrator, who was less than a month on the job, is a poorly thought plan. County elected officials, like Brian Maughan (or the Sheriff's Department), have been dealing with issues at the jail for YEARS! The idea they can't find ways to deal with this crisis using CARES Act money in a responsible, urgent way is beyond the pale. Heartbreaking emails from County staff on August 25th show that good ideas that would cost relatively little, like simply bailing out people who shouldn't be there and would bring immediate relief to pressures at the jail, are ignored. All this while the jail population continues to rise due to the pandemic.
There is also substantial evidence Sue Ann Arnall is in many of the conversations offline (her and Calvey did not submit emails to this request despite their legal requirement to comply). A billionaire corporate attorney turned philanthropist supports many of Calvey's hairbrained ideas and made the request for the CARES money at the August 19th BOCC meeting. Arnall is also the one engaging an architect around possible project costs, which presumably applies to "Step 2" of Calvey's plan to replace operating budgets with CARES funds, then use those funds on capital projects. These emails only go through mid-September but given it is mid-October, the CARES money still hasn't been transferred to the Trust (email) and the CARES money expires at the end of the year, it doesn't seem possible they can get this job done. Meanwhile, the pandemic rages.
Add to this that Calvey is picking a war with everyone, even suing the Trust of which he is a member, over whether the County Jail cooperates with and houses ICE agents. It shows his ridiculous decision making process. While Calvey is the source of all this drama, he is surrounded by enablers who could easily vote him down and move on with the business of doing what they all signed up to do which is fix the jail and reduce human suffering.
While the Jail Trust was created with change being its central argument, it is amazing how much has remained the same. The Sheriff was opposed to the creation and later declined any responsibility, but the Trust has largely committed to performative change at best and has carried out almost exactly what the Sheriff was doing. The contracts and general functioning of the Jail have remained frightening similar and with a less experienced body running it and more dire results.
The Sheriff and his PR department are quick to throw stones, but it is worth pointing out that they have done everything they can to mess up this process and nobody (including the public based on recent election results) is particularly sad to see them go. Their constant sniping at everything, while doing so poorly when they had their chance, smacks of hypocrisy. If anything, they should relish this new change. They can weigh in as the seasoned veterans and not have to do any of the actual grunt work of managing the day to day operations of a crumbling facility of overworked, underpaid staff and many people who simply need help. They get an independent budget and can focus strictly on a more community focused law enforcement. Instead they act like jilted lovers. There are reports that the sheriff's office left near total destruction in their wake when they moved out. Taylor resigning reeks of petulance, not professionalism.
Calvey is being allowed to run wild. By playing on both the ignorance and limited capacity of the volunteer Jail Trust, Calvey is able to run circles around people. He uses amateur legal theory and backward conservative ideology to try and route government money from one hand to the other. Brian Maughan was quoted at a recent debate that voters won't support building a giant new jail. Calvey argued in recent media appearances the protesters want to tear down the existing jail. Both are absolutely right! We don't want a new jail, we want services and systems that keep people out of there and invests in communities and people to live better lives. We want to end interactions with the criminal legal system, these guys want to rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic.
Instead of having our well compensated, full-time elected leaders running the show, they've taken to manipulating the Jail Trust to and fro. Maughan who fancies himself an expert in good government is Calvey's silent partner endorsing every dumb idea he puts forth. Calvey is chaos. He's making everyone react to his increasingly erratic demands.
The abdication of responsibility by our elected leaders, from the budget board to Commissioners Maughan and Calvey is unacceptable. Shifting the County's largest asset, which deals in matters of human freedom and is a source of extreme suffering, to the far less accountable and volunteer led body of the Jail Trust is deeply concerning. Putting Calvey in the driver seat of policy is a disaster. While some Trust members at least have experience in government or social services, some are oligarchs learning as they go. While Calvey is the only currently elected official on the Jail Trust (since the Sheriff quit), he's also running amuck with nobody keeping him in check and many signing off on his disastrous plans. If he has a longer term plan, nobody knows what that is but he appears to be making it up as he goes based on a months old email chain, not any sort of legal or systemic argument.
Below are a range of near term and longer term solutions we can take to get a better county, better criminal legal system and better outcomes for Oklahoma County residents.
1) Vote November 3rd to replace the incumbent Oklahoma County elected officials.
Commissioner Brian Maughan, County Clerk David Hooten and Court Clerk Rick Warren all voted to approve moving the CARES Act money. Spencer Hicks, Christina Chicoraske and Charles de Coune respectively are running to replace them. This group would be a massive upgrade. They bring both heart and head to the job instead of endless drama or reactionary politics. As previously stated, Maughan was Calvey's swing vote at every turn on the BOCC. While Calvey steals the spotlight and starts fights everywhere he goes, Maughan, Hooten and Warren have each played a role in allowing and enabling it. These are well-paid, full-time elected positions that should be using emergency funding to address our out of control pandemic, not dreaming up special construction projects or replacing existing budgets in a intragovernmental money laundering scheme.
There will also be a new sheriff regardless. Wayland Cubit has more experience with how things work in our communities, is more interested in building trust and would likely be a partner the county needs to address our real issues in public safety, not try to punish or incarcerate our way out of them.
2) Get more accountability on the Jail Trust.
While the Sheriff had their issues, they ultimately answered to the people. We've replaced the sheriff with an unelected body that is layers removed from accountability. To date, they've kept nearly every private contract or procedure in place. Their attempt at fixing long term funding problems or gaps in services, has been to do a one-time grab on CARES Act funding and look at a remodeling projects. They need funding, but they need to go and get it from the voters, not take what is not theirs in the midst of a worsening pandemic.
3) Get better elected leaders who can change the system, not just the cosmetics of the building or rely so heavily on outside, private interests to do the work we elected them to do.
This problem is more than one election can fix but it starts now. A lot of research has been done by community leaders on all aspects of our system and instead of preventing crime or increasing public safety, we've created a cruel system of punishment that traps people in a never ending cycle. The Court Clerk and others can help to immediately shed light on these issues. Instead of trying to pump money out of some of the poorest people in our society, we can work to get them help and allow them to return to society.
Beyond that, we need a strategy to deal with our societal challenges. If mental health, addiction and poverty are the main drivers of crime, let's address those instead of trying to punish our way to success. The new system may cost more in the short term but will have better outcomes and more humanity in the longer term. The current crew doesn't get that. Maughan, Warren and Hooten just don't want the responsibility and would rather blame the Jail Trust. Calvey seems content to sow chaos. We need leaders who are up for the job, willing to make the case to the voters and can change the system.
4) Fight the Pandemic.
Our economy and health are intricately tied together. By pushing CARES Act funding to the Jail, we are ignoring the multitude of ways the County could address the pandemic from simply getting people out of the jail that don't belong there to increasing resources for testing and tracing to other public health measures to mitigate COVID. They can also help support the many workers, families and small businesses being crushed by this virus. That is the purpose of CARES Act funding, not construction projects at the County Jail.
All of this and more are on the November 3rd ballot. Please vote accordingly.