126 inmates, staff test positive for COVID-19
To date 109 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus at the Comanche County Detention Center
To date 109 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus at the Comanche County Detention Center

LAWTON – The COVID-19 outbreak at the overcrowded Comanche County Detention Center (CCDC) has progressed from a local health crisis to a political issue involving officials at the highest levels of state government.

Gov. Kevin Stitt’s administration got involved over the weekend when Lawton Mayor Stan Booker called him directly, Hilliary Media confirmed. Stitt then contacted the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (DOC), and Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter was alerted Sunday afternoon, staff reporters were told.

State Health Commissioner Gary Cox placed the Comanche County Detention Center under a 14-day quarantine Saturday after 126 inmates and staff members tested positive for the coronavirus.

Apparently, as a direct consequence of the governor’s involvement, the DOC made an unannounced visit to the Lawton jail last weekend. In addition, the AG’s office has waded into the issue. And several state legislators have indicated their concerns about the situation.

All members of the Comanche County legislative delegation “are closely monitoring what’s going on at the county jail,” and legislative leaders have been made aware of “the growing problem” of COVID-19 cases in county jails, said state Rep. Daniel Pae, R-Lawton.

CCDC EXCEEDS CAPACITY BY MORE THAN 50

The CCDC is designed to hold a maximum of 283 inmates, according to the State Health Department. As of Sunday night, 340 inmates were confined in the facility, the jail’s website showed.

Barry Edwards, manager of the state Health Department’s Detention Program, said the last annual inspection of the Comanche County Detention Center occurred Dec. 13, 2019. The inmate population then was 347, he said. 

William Hobbs, the detention center administrator, said the jail has been cited twice since August 2012 for overcrowding. Justin Wolf, communications director for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, said the department has eight inmates housed at the Comanche County Detention Center.

Those eight prisoners have been awaiting transfer to DOC facilities for some time, possibly weeks or months, he said. In an agency agreement with all county sheriffs, Wolf said, all DOC transfers were halted on March 18 due to the COVID-19 outbreak. He was unable to tell Hilliary Media how long the eight inmates in the CCDC have been waiting to be transferred.

Most, but not all, of the prisoners in the CCDC are incarcerated for felony offenses, some violent, including murder and manslaughter. Thirty of the prisoners were confined for offenses alleged to have occurred after May 6 – the date by which it was evident that a health problem existed – and a dozen of those admissions occurred last weekend, May 15-16, jail records show. Furthermore, six of the inmates jailed between May 6 and May 16 are being held for misdemeanor offenses, records reflect.

A message that appears on the CCDC website reads, “The Comanche County Detention Center is committed to ensuring the health and safety of all inmates, staff and visitors. Due to the situation with COVID-19 and CDC guidelines on social distancing, CCDC has suspended all visitation until further notice.”

HEALTH DEPARTMENT TESTS INMATES, STAFF

Brandie Combs, Region 5 director for the State Health Department, said Monday that 359 CCDC inmates have been tested by the Health Department over the past couple of weeks. “We tested every inmate except for two” who refused the test, she said.

To date 109 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus, Ms. Combs said; that number includes 99 men and 10 women. Another 231, including 44 females and 187 males, have tested negative, she said. Less than two weeks ago, 30 individuals in the CCDC tested positive for the coronavirus on May 6.

District 2 Comanche County Commissioner Johnny Owens said taxpayers are paying for CCDC inmate health care.

The detention center “gets so much money off of several different factions of the government,” said Owens, who as the Central District commissioner has oversight

of the facility. “We’re taking some money from CCIDA (Comanche County Industrial Development Authority) and helping with the detention center. Like I said, it all comes down to the taxpayer if you want to know the truth.”

Because of the quarantine no one except for staff and other authorized personnel, such as law enforcement officers, is allowed inside the Comanche County jail.

Among the employees at the detention center, 63 have been tested, Ms. Combs said. Of those, 46 were negative but 17 tested positive, and 13 of them have recovered, she said.

The 126 confirmed infections at the detention center constituted 56% of the 224 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Comanche County as of 11 a.m. May 18. According to the State Health Department, 124 of the Comanche County coronavirus patients have recovered and three have died.

No deaths among CCDC inmates or staff have occurred, but one staff member was hospitalized, Ms. Combs said.

OFFICIALS TRYING TO ‘MITIGATE THE SPREAD’ OF CORONAVIRUS

The state and county health departments reportedly are assisting the Comanche County Board of Commissioners and the District Attorney’s office, and CCDC Administrator William Hobbs, to determine how to isolate inmates who test positive for the coronavirus and to continue testing any prisoners who exhibit symptoms of the disease.

“We are working with the facility to mitigate the spread of the virus,” Ms. Combs said.

However, isolation in the Comanche County jail is problematic.

“We don’t have the ability to segregate those inmates,” Comanche County Commissioner Gail Turner told Hilliary Media Sunday night. Also, he noted, because of the way the facility was built, all of the inmates and staff breathe the same air that circulates throughout the jail.

Some other counties in Oklahoma are experiencing problems similar to those afflicting the CCDC, Ms. Combs said.

Staff writers Mike W. Ray, M. Scott Carter, KaraLee Langford, Michael Carrier, Tim Farley and JJ Francais contributed to this article.