County jails in Oklahoma face immense risk from COVID-19

COVID-19 Policy Analysis: As our nation confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, OK Policy will be analyzing state and federal policies that impact our state and its residents during this national health emergency. These posts reflect the most current information available at publication, and we will update or publish follow-ups as new information becomes available.

NOTE: OK Policy is not a state agency and we cannot assist in applying for state services or provide legal advice.

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Oklahoma’s county jails are poised to become another epicenter in the COVID-19 crisis. As the state grapples with this pandemic, overcrowded and under-resourced jails present enormous risk to rural hospitals and to the state’s most vulnerable communities who are typically jailed at disproportionate rates. County jails are uniquely dangerous places to manage an outbreak. 

Health experts also warn that a second more deadly wave of COVID-19 infections may hit the nation in the fall or winter, and many suggest this crisis may persist for more than a year until a vaccine is developed, tested, and distributed. This creates an entirely new level of health risk in county jails, which receive and release thousands of Oklahomans annually. For example in 2016 there were 19,485 admissions into the Tulsa County jail, and more than 90 percent of those admissions returned from the jail back to their communities. During the COVID-19 crisis this sort of “churn” into and out of a space as difficult to manage as a jail represents profound public health risk. Urgent action is necessary to reduce the ongoing risk this pandemic presents to Oklahoma’s jails and the entire state. 

Unlike state and federal prisons that are administered by the state and federal governments, county jails are resourced and maintained largely by county sherriffs, county commissioners, and jail trusts that represent local Oklahoma communities. This more complicated framework calls for specific evidence-based recommendations from the Governor to direct jail administrators towards best practices to reduce the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak in Oklahoma’s county jails. 

Reducing the COVID-19 threat in jails and prisons is an important issue all along the political spectrum, including recommendations from groups like Americans for Prosperity and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Jail outbreaks present enormous risks to rural hospitals

Much of the threat from COVID-19 stems from the fact that the virus strains hospital systems — and in some places, it completely exhausts them. Oklahoma could face a shortage of hospital beds and resources as the virus spreads in coming weeks and months. This crisis is worsened by the fact that many county jails are located 50 miles or more from a hospital facility with a single intensive care bed. There are 77 counties in Oklahoma and 50 of those counties have no ICU beds. Hospitals in many smaller counties were struggling to remain staffed and resourced before the COVID-19 crisis. Without more concerted action to protect rural Oklahoma jails from the threat of an outbreak, rural hospitals may be unable to manage the crisis. The state’s failure to expand Medicaid only heightens this risk. 

The national picture of the current jail outbreaks provides a sense of the greater risk. Since mid-March, numerous jails across the nation have struggled to contain the virus. Ventilators and hospital resources have already been exhausted by jail and prison outbreaks in other states. Reported jail outbreaks now exist in numerous states and members of law enforcement, as well as jail and medical staff, have been infected in most of these outbreaks. Most concerning is the alarming speed and infection rate of these transmissions. On March 23, two jail detainees in Cook County, Illinois tested positive for coronavirus. Less than a week later more than 100 inmates and a dozen employees tested positive for the virus. As of last week, the infected number of inmates and staff from the Cook County jail stands at more than 500. 

One analysis of the Cook County jail outbreak revealed an infection rate that was nearly 28 times higher than the infection rate among the broader Chicago community and 47 times higher than the national average. A similar analysis of an outbreak at Rikers Island Jail in New York showed an infection rate that was nearly 59 times higher than the national average. 

If you superimpose these types of outbreaks on a rural Oklahoma county, the outlook is dire. Oklahoma has failed to expand Medicaid, which has triggered hospital closings, fewer hospital staff, and reduced services in rural communities. Many rural counties in Oklahoma have jails filled with inmates and staff who are at increased risk of infection because social distancing and other mitigation strategies are impossible in jail. The human toll of a jail outbreak could be devastating for communities that lack necessary protective equipment, intensive care units, ventilators, and medical support staff to help contain large scale outbreaks. 

Jail outbreaks risk some of Oklahoma’s most vulnerable 

Oklahoma’s county jails — like jails across the nation— are filled with people from predominantly low-income communities and jail populations disproportionately represent communities of color. More than 80 percent of all criminal defendants are declared indigent, which means they can’t afford an attorney. Recent experiences of homelessness are 7.5 to 11.3 times more common among jail inmates than in the general population. Those from low-income communities often have less access to health care, making them more susceptible to illness like COVID-19. These issues are compounded in a state like Oklahoma, which consistently ranks among the nation’s least healthy states. 

Blacks, Latinos, and American Indians are each jailed at higher rates than White Americans. Blacks and Latinos represent 30 percent of the general population, but they are 51 percent of the nation’s jail population. American Indians also are overrepresented in Oklahoma jails. During the COVID-19 crisis, these racial disparities only exacerbate the public health risk to these incarcerated communities as data from multiple states now suggests that Black and American Indian communities have increased risk of hospitalization and death from infection. 

Urgent action can still save lives

County jails faced a public health crisis long before COVID-19. This pandemic simply amplified the profound threat to public health created by mass incarceration. Physical spaces where racial and socioeconomic disparities coalesce with the failure of the state’s rural healthcare system are a recipe for disaster. Even now, though, policymakers can reverse these negative outcomes. The Governor can develop and publish executive actions and plans to protect those who are incarcerated in Oklahoma’s county jails. Such action will better protect the entire state. 

The Governor should take immediate Executive Action to set statewide best practices for county jails for the duration of this crisis including:

  • Recommendation of pretrial release of anyone arrested for non-violent misdemeanors or felonies provided they are not a flight risk or a threat to public safety. 
  • Recommendation of pretrial release for anyone detained in jail who is not deemed a threat to public safety or a flight risk.
  • Immediate suspension of incarceration for failure to pay court fees or technical supervision violations like missing a meeting or failing a drug test.
  • Immediate suspension of the accrual and collection of fines and fees, at least until statewide safer at home orders are lifted.
  • Each jail should be asked to make public their plans to sterilize common spaces and laundry based on CDC guidelines. 
  • Personal protective equipment and masks should be provided to all jail staff and masks should be provided to all inmates. 
  • Jails should implement plans to humanely isolate immunocompromised individuals who cannot be released while humanely quarantining and testing those suspected of infection. Each jail should make public specific hospitalization plans in the event of an outbreak to protect those in need. 
  • No one should be incarcerated past their release date. Basic Constitutional due process must be protected. Access to legal assistance, hearings, and court protections must be an essential part of any statewide COVID-19 jail plan.


Damion served as the criminal justice policy analyst for the Oklahoma Policy Institute from July 2018 until June 2022. He grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and has lived in Oklahoma since the late 90s. Prior to joining OK Policy, he was an educator at Jenks Public Schools and the Oklahoma School for the Performing Arts. He’s written education and justice features as a contributing writer for the Tulsa Voice since 2016, and he was awarded best Education and General News Reporting features by the Society for Professional Journalists in 2017. Damion earned a Bachelor’s Degree from Oral Roberts University and started several voter registration and political advocacy initiatives during his time on campus. He lives in Tulsa with his wife Rachel.

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