13th Oklahoma County Jail inmate dies in less than a year

by Mike Creef, Staff Writer
oklahoma county jail inmate dies

Earlier this week, Detention Officer Jesse Kight was fired from the Oklahoma County jail the day after an inmate was discovered hanging in his cell.

Kight could also face criminal charges for his failure in following policies and procedures.

“Preliminary indications of misconduct in this case may lead to charges against the detention officer,” said Greg Williams, CEO of the Oklahoma County Detention Center. “Staff must and will be held accountable for not following policies and procedures.”

The inmate was 40-year-old Gabriel Yalartai, who had not been checked on in almost 12 hours, officials said.

Staff at Okla. County Jail repeatedly fail to check on inmates

Oklahoma County Detention Center (OCDC) spokesperson Mark Opgrande said, “At 4:20am Sunday morning, detainee Gabriel Yalartai was discovered in his cell by a detention office who immediately began CPR on what appears to be an attempted suicide.”

Yalartai was supposed to be checked every 30 minutes because he was being held in a mental health unit. He had last been seen at 4:55p.m. Saturday when he was brought food, officials said. He died the next day after attempting to hang himself around 4 a.m. on Sunday.

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The Oklahoma County jail has repeatedly been cited by the Oklahoma Department of Health for missing required cell checks.

According to The Oklahoman, the jail has failed two inspections since June by the Department of Health.

The jail failed an inspection on June 23, which led to the removal of all juveniles being held in the facility. On Oct. 21, the health department did a surprise follow-up inspection, which the jail also failed.  

In their reports, the Department of Health highlighted a lack of inmate access to showers and clean bedding, bed bugs, unsupervised open doors, and holes in cell walls that allowed inmates to move freely from cell to cell. 

Jail drastically understaffed

On the night of the surprise inspection, only 10 detention staff were assigned to the overnight shift to cover seven floors holding nearly 1,700 inmates.

“We’re a service agency and we’re providing a service to the community,” Trust Chair Jim Couch said. “I know sometimes we could do a better job, but it isn’t because we’re not trying and it isn’t because our heart’s not in the right place.”

The jail has been run by a county trust since July 2020, which Couch said “was an unstable time for us when we took it over.”

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The National Institute of Corrections noted a “tremendously high attrition rate” among staff and that insufficient staffing led to “quick hiring without proper background checks of unqualified people.”

Williams has expressed a need for increased staffing at jail trust meetings, but continues to have difficulty retaining staff.

“It’s hard work. It’s sometimes depressing, but it’s a wonderful place to work if you really care about people and society as a whole,” he said. 

Oversight board struggles to improve jail to humane standards

Officials in Oklahoma County jails report that they are spraying for bed bugs on a monthly basis, and that many of the plumbing issues were resolved with heavy investments from COVID relief funds brought in by the federal government.

Both the Health Department and the National Institution of Corrections observed insufficient staffing as well as a failure by staff to follow procedure.

Williams claims a large part of that is due to the transition of ownership from the Sheriff’s Office to the trust.

​​​​​​”When we took over in July, it was one week — the sheriff’s training was one week — and we doubled that immediately to two weeks in class and one week of on-the-job training,” Williams said.

The Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council has recommended the construction of a new jail. The recommendation came after months of consulting with architectural firms, financial experts, and other stakeholders in the city.

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“It’s exciting, but our eyes are still focused on the jail at hand and making sure we continue to do the improvements here,” Couch said.

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