The county jail in Luther, not likely

Bison Blinds

Word that one of the bids offering land to build a new Oklahoma County jail in an unincorporated part of Luther will perk up your ears. While the $1.1 million dollar bid for 60 acres at 150th and Peebly Road is just one of five bids submitted, common sense should prevail on whether that bid would be a top contender. Stranger things have happened. Still, Eastern Oklahoma County residents are fierce when it comes to change, especially when “our way of life” is threatened.

The thought of a new jail, housing a couple of thousand detainees on charges (and pending charges) ranging from drunk driving, meth possession, rape and murder, hasn’t been welcome, despite whatever benefit could come from having the envisioned justice center in our part of the county.

Regardless, you can’t blame a private landowner for trying to earn a fast million dollars by throwing in a bid.

Back in January, the Board of Oklahoma County Commissioners solicited proposals for the donation and/or purchase of tract, or tracts, of land containing or totaling approximately forty to eighty acres for the construction of the new Oklahoma County Jail and related facilities. Oklahoma County sought bids from public and private property owners. Read more about the process from Oklahoma City Free Press. Note the bids for public land are due next.

Before we continue with the jail story, a digression.

Those private land bids were presented to the BOCC at a meeting that I happened to have attended earlier this month. In addition to the bid presentation, the agenda included consideration of a Planned Unit Development in unincorporated Oklahoma County just outside of Luther for a non-profit ministry that seeks to offer retreat and respite care for single moms, ministers and others walking a hard life. Nearly 100% of the neighbors near the site at Sorghum Mill Road and Triple X Road are against it. One neighbor said the ruckus of yard games like corn hole and yard darts would disrupt his porch sitting and listening to the whippoorwills. Others said folks who have experienced trauma, such as foster children, are a danger to their children, grandchildren, and cattle. Despite the protests, the Oklahoma Planning Commission approved the application, before sending it to the three county commissioners.

That agenda item was continued to an April meeting, making a wasted trip for the dozens of folks who appeared at the BOCC on that issue. District 3 Commissioner Myles Davidson said he wasn’t ready to vote on it, and has asked the District Attorney’s office to determine whether the property needs a PUD at all because of the definition of Rural Residential that might cover the purpose of the land use. Still, both sides are dug in, and have hired attorneys. In the city and the suburbs, protestors to new development and land use are colloquially referred to as NIMBYs (Not in My Back Yard). In rural areas, folks just want their “way of life” protected, to the extent of preventing neighboring landowners from doing what they plan on their land. Note to land owners – check all planning and zoning laws in your jurisdiction sooner than later. And even if you do let the neighbors know what you’re up to, they might team up to fight you.

Back to the jail

Those jail bids were presented at the BOCC, but not opened during the meeting. Later I read in The Oklahoman, three of the five bids were in Eastern Oklahoma County – Luther, Jones, and Harrah.

Initially, I thought a jail in our part of the county would be “good” for local law enforcement, and might have some economic development benefits. When the Luther Police Department has to take an arrestee to the jail in downtown Oklahoma City, they could be out of jurisdiction for hours. So closer jail, better public safety coverage for the area. And with a jail nearby, we’d have more people in the area, possibly fueling the local economy getting lunch, buying gas. Maybe lawyers would open nearby offices, or bail bond offices would set up shop. Maybe mental health counselors or rehab centers would follow fulfilling a need for the whole community.

But it didn’t take long to think of several cons for any of the EOC sites. In Luther, accessibility is cumbersome at best, given the illogical Turner Turnpike Luther/Jones exit at Hogback Road, or the entry on the Kickapoo Exit at Britton Road. Now imagine law enforcement bringing a detainee, maybe from Deer Creek, all the way to the edge of the county for booking, instead of the center of the county near the courthouse and criminal justice infrastructure. Imagine the Oklahoma City Police Department having to drive out this way for booking.

And let’s consider the lack of infrastructure in EOC, and Luther. There’s no public sewer or water systems at the Luther bid location in unincorporated Oklahoma County. And perhaps the biggest factor, the proposed Luther site falls within the jurisdiction of the Luther Volunteer Fire Department. No doubt the $260 million voter approved bond money to build the new jail will come with all modern tools to make it escape and contraband proof, and safer and healthier for those who are required to stay while they wait on court dates and the slow-moving justice system. But emergencies happen. Fires happen. Escapes happen. Someone even said the nearby railroad provided a train-jumping escape route.

Late-night texts to me and several calls at Luther Town Hall were alerts that folks were alarmed by the Luther bid. The two private property bids closer to Oklahoma City seem more suited to the cause. Add to that, bids for government-owned land have not been submitted, signaling a wait-and-see approach until all of the options are presented. At any rate, the concern led me to work up a quick map of the bid sites for a visual.

Observers know that just about everything relating to the Oklahoma County jail is problematic. I remember covering the opening of the jail in 1991 as a cub reporter, and the first escapee soon after. Immediately the jail was a joke. Not so funny for the employees who work there, and those who are detained. Fast forward through decades of more escapes, raw sewage problems, contraband, and deaths, and it’s no wonder voters approved the request to build a new jail in June 2022. You’ll also recall the management of the jail, ripped from the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office in July 2020, and given to a new jail trust. That hasn’t gone well either. Just last week, the multi-county grand jury returned a scathing report recommending the new Oklahoma County Jail Trust “self-terminate” and give the administration of the jail back to the sheriff’s office. It’s a lot to follow, but NonDoc is among the media outlets doing an excellent job.

It is a lot to follow. And it’s hard to keep the faith that an opportunity to right the wrongs and build something new will solve the challenges of county incarceration and bloated case files. It’s so problematic, the voter-approved bond money won’t solve it just with a shiny new justice center. So fair point, maybe we don’t want it in our backyard.

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