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Ardmore, OK 73401-7039
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CUSTODY OF JAIL
All counties in the State of Oklahoma are required to have a jail or to provide for a place of imprisonment for all persons confined by law from that county. Title 57 O.S. 41 sets out, “Every county . . . shall have a jail or access to a jail.” Title 57 O.S. 64, in the meantime, sets out that “When there is no sufficient prison in any county,” the sheriff shall transport prisoners to the nearest county having a “sufficient jail” at the expense of the transporting county.
It is clear that these jails fall under the sole and complete control of the sheriff. The county commissioners and excise board can appropriate but they cannot regulate: “The sheriff shall have the charge and custody of the jail of his county, and all the prisoners in the same . . . .” 19 O.S. 513. Likewise, 57 O.S. 47 states:
“The sheriff . . . shall have charge of the county jail of his county and of all persons by law confined therein, and such sheriff . . . is hereby required to conform, in all respects, to the rules and directions promulgated pursuant to Section 192 of Title 74 of the Oklahoma Statutes and of the district judge and communicated to him by proper authority.”
Neglect, or refusal of the sheriff to comply with the above provisions can subject him to criminal liability under 57 O.S. 55; and, because of this liability, he could also be subjected to removal from office. Furthermore, the sheriff is liable not only for his own actions and/or negligence, but that of his jailers as well, 57 O.S. 54.
It is clear from the wording of 57 O.S. 64 that if the county’s jail is not “sufficient,” the sheriff has no choice, he must transport the prisoners in his custody rather than housing them in said jail.
To then determine what is adequate or enough, one must look to the three general areas of the law which govern the duties a sheriff has with respect to the prisoners under his control.
First and foremost of these, of course, are the duties imposed by Amendment VIII to the United States Constitution stating that “cruel and unusual punishments” shall not be inflicted. This same guarantee is made by II Ok.Const. 9. While mere failure to conform to set minimum jail standards is not per se unconstitutional, any questions regarding general conditions of confinement, i.e. questions regarding medical treatment, the physical facilities in which confinement occurs, or the safety of prisoners in such confinement, etc., is always subject to Eighth Amendment scrutiny. As any sheriff knows all to well, any violation which is found to rise to the level of being a violation of such constitutional rights can become the subject of a 42 U.S.C. 1983 lawsuit.
Lack of funding has repeatedly been held not to be
“An acceptable excuse for unconstitutional conditions of incarceration . . . Furthermore, unconstitutional prison conditions cannot be excused by the fact that the required extra expenditures would violate the prison authorities’ duty to stay within spending limits imposed by state law.”
In addition to these constitutional requirements, a sheriff must, of course, also comply with the Minimum Inspection Standards for Oklahoma Jails enunciated by the Oklahoma Department of Health, as provided for in 74 O.S. 192. A violation of these standards possibly subjects the county and/or the sheriff to two sanctions. Title 74 O.S. 194 sets out the procedures whereby any jail not found to be in compliance with the Minimum Jail Standards is to be closed upon complaint made to the District court of the county in which such facility is located. Moreover, because these standards are in fact “minimum” and most apply to the basic conditions of confinement, any violation of these standards would likely be considered an Eighth Amendment violation as well, thereby eliciting the sanctions described above.
While prison officials normally have qualified immunity for acts done in the performance of their duties, even if such acts are later considered constitutional or statutory violations, such immunity “is not available, however, when the constitutional or statutory right violated was clearly established at the time of the violation.” A sheriff would therefore be hard-pressed to justify his qualifying for such immunity in cases wherein he has failed to meet a specific Minimum Jail Standard or wherein he has not complied with a requirement of case law.
More recently, the same court has held: “The weight of authority is that the statutory duty imposed upon the sheriff to keep his prisoners safely charges him with the duty of ordinary care to accord them decent treatment and to see that they do not come to harm by negligence.”