The Oklahoma County Detention Center, built in 1991 in downtown Oklahoma City, will be replaced. Some leaders say the current state-mandated minimum distance between schools and correctional facilities isn't enough. (Photo by Carmen Forman/Oklahoma Voice)
OKLAHOMA CITY — The first Oklahoma County jail relocation in generations has raised questions and worries over how close a detention center can — and should — be to schools.
Multiple school district superintendents spoke out in recent weeks as county commissioners considered potential sites less than a mile from school facilities.
The three-member Board of Commissioners agreed last week on a 192-acre property immediately north of Will Rogers World Airport, a mostly industrial area with no K-12 schools within about 3 miles.
But the property isn’t yet procured and considerable hurdles lay ahead. The county must gain approval from the Oklahoma City Airport Trust, and the Federal Aviation Administration is likely to give input.
State law requires any correctional facility be no less than 1,000 feet from a school or church. That amounts to less than two tenths of a mile.
That distance is too small, said Steven Stefanick, superintendent of the Harding Independence Charter District.
One northeast Oklahoma City site the commissioners considered, and ultimately nixed, would have been less than a block from Harding Charter Preparatory High School.
State law prohibits registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school. A jail shouldn’t be allowed to detain them even closer than that, Stefanick said.
He said his concerns grew at the thought of inmates with no transportation leaving the facility on foot when released.
“That was the concern of them building a jail in the middle of a field where the only nearby building is essentially a school,” Stefanick said of the site near Harding Charter Prep. “There’s nothing out there to support those individuals transitioning from their sentence. That’s the bigger concern for me is there has to be a place where there’s quality infrastructure to ensure the safety not only of the school but the surrounding community.”
School districts on the other end of Oklahoma City voiced similar worries over foot traffic coming out of the jail.
Although a deal isn’t done, the commissioners’ preference of the airport property is a “huge relief” to Brad Richards, superintendent of Crooked Oak Public Schools.
The commissioners had narrowed their list of potential jail locations to two. The second option at 1901 E. Grand Blvd is half a mile away from Crooked Oak’s sports facility, which local voters recently passed a $26 million bond to upgrade.
An elementary school in the Midwest City-Del City school district sits about a mile to the east.
Superintendents of both districts opposed locating the jail in an area where many students walk home from school, wait at bus stops and visit their football stadium.
“There will be people released straight out the doors (of the jail), and where are they going to go with no car?” Richards said. “Well, if they turn to the right, that will be right toward our sports facility.”
Downtown Oklahoma City has been home to the county jail for decades. The current facility has struggled with detainee deaths, inmate escapes and poor living conditions since it opened in 1991.
Despite its troubles, the jail is conveniently situated only blocks away from the county courthouse, police headquarters and the public defenders’ office. A shuttle runs during regular work hours Monday through Friday to the Diversion Hub, where former inmates can access services.
Moving the jail away from downtown will require a new transportation plan for when inmates are detained and released, Oklahoma County Commissioner Carrie Blumert said.
She said she would support a change to state law to increase the 1,000-foot distance requirement between correctional centers and schools, but even without a new law, she said the commissioners have been cognizant of educational centers near each potential site.
“I think all three of the county commissioners have been in pretty solid agreement that we don’t want to build the jail near schools,” Blumert said.
The airport land is an attractive option with few schools and neighborhoods in the area, she said. The property is bounded by Southwest 54th Street to the south, Newcastle Road to the north, and Meridian Avenue and South MacArthur Boulevard to the east and west.
It sits near the border between two school districts, Oklahoma City and Western Heights. Although it would fall within Western Heights’ boundaries, several OKCPS schools are within a 3- to 4-mile range, district spokesperson Crystal Raymond said.
“While we understand this is not an easy decision and many will see concerns with each location; we are grateful that the commission continues to consider the potential disruptions any location could cause for all educational institutions in our community,” Raymond said in a statement.
There are few places in Oklahoma City like the airport site with so few residential and educational locations in a 3-mile radius, said Rep. Jon Echols, a Republican whose House district encompasses the area.
Having the Federal Transfer Center nearby for inmates is also ideal, he said.
Should lawmakers take another look at the distance requirement between jails and schools, Echols said he wouldn’t oppose it, but the conversation shouldn’t stop there.
“I would be supportive of legislation if it was coupled with the state providing additional funding and paying more for these county jails,” said Echols, the majority floor leader. “We don’t pay enough money right now for the costs of jails when they’re holding (state Department of Corrections) inmates. I would love to see more cooperation.”
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