Oklahoma's inclusion in a Top 10 list of states with the highest number of deaths in county jails demands immediate action.
A Reuters News investigation found the mortality rate for inmates at Oklahoma's largest county jails ranked higher than every state but West Virginia. The investigation, which examined jail deaths from 2009 through 2019, found about half of the 148 inmate deaths in Oklahoma were the result of an illness, and about 25% by suicide.
A report published in 2017 by Priority Criminal Justice Needs Initiative outlined policies that can help reduce inmate deaths attributable to illness and suicide. Providing medical care to inmates in a timelier manner would reduce deaths caused by illness, and access to mental health and substance abuse programs could reduce the rate of jail suicides.
Court records show a number of inmates being held during a period of pretrial detention died in Oklahoma jails because medical care was denied or delayed. Those records show there are others who took their own lives because they were housed in a jail cell because treatment in a more appropriate setting was unavailable.
Of the 148 jail deaths documented by the Reuters News investigation, 141 were people who were awaiting trial and unable to post bond. Considering the presumption of innocence granted to the accused, it is important that pretrial detention does not become a death sentence.
Pretrial detainees have a constitutional right to medical care, and that care should be provided when the state determines a person must be deprived of his or her liberty rights while awaiting due process.
Oklahoma voters approved two measures nearly five years ago that were intended to reduce jail and prison crowding and allocate the money saved to community level mental health and substance abuse programs. Apparently no money has been allocated for those programs, and mental health of inmates remains a problem.
If lawmakers fail to provide funding needed to provide medical and mental health care for inmates, they must make bail reform a priority. We cannot endorse a system that allows inmates to die at the rate they have at the state's largest facilities during the past decade.