An Oklahoma sheriff and most of her employees have resigned over unsafe county jail conditions, including carbon monoxide, mold, and a snake.
Nowata County Sheriff Terry Sue Barnett announced her resignation on Monday, explaining she’d been ordered to move inmates back into the jail now, several weeks after it was evacuated when four employees were hospitalized from exposure to dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide. Barnett told reporters that they had never identified the source of the carbon monoxide leak; nonetheless, a judge had mandated she return the 14 inmates to the facility or risk being held in contempt of court. She said the conditions at the jail “do not comply with constitutional standards.”
Barnett handed out a copy of her resignation letter to reporters, which listed other concerns besides the carbon monoxide leak. For example, she said there was mold in the jail and the adjoining offices, and inmates had been shocked due to exposed wiring in the shower area.
“There was an episode of a snake falling on the head of a prisoner when opening a door in the jail,” Barnett wrote. “The jail is inadequately budgeted. We have inadequate staff and it is inadequate.”
At least 17 other jail employees also resigned. The jail requires six employees in order to operate, according to the Enid News & Eagle; currently there are just two employees left.
An auditor from the American Correctional Association, which is an accrediting body for the corrections industry, toured the jail after the carbon monoxide leak, and reached damning conclusions. “It is not safe, nor is it secure,” auditor Michelle Robinette said when presenting her 69-page report before the Nowata County commission. “It is dangerous, and there are liability issues.”
Fourteen inmates from the jail in Nowata County, which is the third poorest county in Oklahoma, the Washington Post reported, were transferred to a facility in nearby Washington County. Barnett told the Enid News & Eagle that three of those inmates were slated to be released on an ankle-monitoring program by April 1, and that another two would be transferred into the state prison system.
Barnett, a former officer from Tulsa Police Department, was elected sheriff of Nowata County — which has a population of around 10,000 and is located on the Kansas border — in November. The incumbent had been arrested the previous month and charged with embezzlement.
She said that the Nowata County Associate District Judge Carl Gibs, before threatening to hold her in contempt of court, had offered to secure a salary raise. “I feel like he tried to bribe me last Thursday,” Barnett said. She described Nowata County as “a good ol’ boys club.” “If I could get onboard with them, then things could be good,” Barnett said. ‘But I believe in doing the right thing, and I’m not going to stand down from doing the right thing.”
An interim sheriff has been installed in the meantime.
“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 said. “I, too, hope and pray nothing happens and that our prisoners remain safe wherever they are. I will continue to support Nowata County, but under this environment it is impossible for me to continue.”
Cover: Inmates wait in line outside the jail library to meet with a public defender in Tulsa, Okla., on December 14, 2016. (James Gibbard/Tulsa World via AP)