Leona Lofton fielded a call Jan. 4 from her paraplegic sister in Tulsa’s municipal jail, and that was the last time the siblings spoke.
“I asked her what was wrong,” Lofton told the Tulsa World on Friday. “ ‘I can’t breathe. I’m sitting here in a diaper, and they took my wheelchair away from me.’ ”
Lofton said her sister, Lawanda Ward, suffered from lupus and was a diagnosed paraplegic. The 46-year-old woman died Jan. 6 after she was found unresponsive in her cell, the first inmate death in the facility. Tulsa Police had arrested her four days earlier at the scene of a larceny.
Lofton, who said she worked for years as a Tulsa County detention officer, said she could hear Ward struggling to breathe on the phone. Lofton said she pleaded with her sister to tell the guards how she felt, but Ward kept repeating that none would listen to her.
Lofton said she and her family are angry and want to know what happened to her because she apparently wasn’t fine behind bars.
“I just have to take it day by day,” Lofton said. “My sister and my best friend is gone.”
Tulsa attorney Dan Smolen is representing Ward’s family to try to find out what happened while she was in custody.
The city’s release of information regarding the matter has been a trickle, including not confirming Ward’s death to the Tulsa World until nearly 24 hours after the newspaper first made inquiries.
She reportedly was found unresponsive in her cell about 8:30 a.m. Jan. 6, according to a police spokesperson. Ward had complained of not feeling well at her booking; EMSA paramedics checked and cleared her before she was incarcerated.
Her court appearance was scheduled for that morning on four misdemeanor warrants for larceny, as well as improper starting or stopping of a vehicle and failure to have a driver’s license.
Jail deaths must be reported by no later than the next working day to the state’s health department. The city hasn’t released that incident report nearly two weeks later, despite multiple requests from the Tulsa World.
The Mayor’s Office called in OSBI to investigate, and the Police Department nine days ago said there won’t be any more responses for interview requests “out of respect for the investigative process.”
The Police Department denied a Tulsa World open records request for video of interactions between any personnel and Ward in the jail. The department stated that jail video isn’t covered under state open records law.
The statutes specifically name audio and video recordings from equipment attached to law enforcement vehicles or officers. It states that footage required to be released includes any exercise of authority by an officer that deprives a citizen’s liberty, actions of an officer that have come under investigation or of public interest that might determine whether officers are appropriately performing duties.
The 30-bed facility opened March 1, 2018, signalling the end of the city’s partnership with the county over a longstanding feud about how much it costs to house inmates at the Tulsa County jail.
The cost of the lockup
At the city’s request, the private security contractor operating the city lockup provided an option for 24/7 nursing staff at a cost of $500,000 in its bid proposal.
However, the city ultimately rejected that option in favor of calls to EMSA — an emergency medical and ambulance service — and the Tulsa Fire Department when medical needs arise, according to the final contract.
G4S, which operates the jail and provides security for the city, proposed that a medical subcontractor provide 24/7 nursing staff for $448,362. Part of the duties would have been to provide “initial health assessments for all inmates” before being booked into the jail.
Instead, G4S administers the lockup’s health questionnaire before booking an inmate. It also dispenses the inmates’ medications.
Deputy Mayor Amy Brown, in a previous Tulsa World story, said the city would spend more if it increased safety and efficiency at the facility.
Brown on Friday said the nursing option was declined because certified nursing assistants and licensed practical nurses would only be able to dispense medication and potentially check vitals.
“Essentially, we would just be paying half a million a year for a CNA to call EMSA or the Fire Department,” Brown said.
She said the arrangement meets state Health Department codes and added that the city already funds EMSA and TFD. The lockup’s 30-bed capacity isn’t large enough to warrant having a treating physician on hand, she said.
“We knew what was required under state law to be compliant as a 10-day lockup, but we also were trying to do our due diligence and find out how much additional supports and resources we could bring into the facility,” Brown said.
The city paid $151,605 in inmate medical costs the first year it was open, according to data it provided. Brown said those costs essentially were doctor’s bills for the inmates, none of which would have been offset by having a nursing service.
There were 159 medical calls in 2019 to which EMSA or the Fire Department responded, and there were 149 medical transports to hospitals, according to data the city provided. There also were 35 municipal inmates who were released by judges for medical reasons.
“EMSA and the Fire Department worked hand in hand with our lockup staff to ensure that medical was addressed,” Brown said.
Mayor G.T. Bynum, in announcing in 2017 the city’s decision to operate its own lockup, described it in part as a business decision. The $1.2 million cost to operate the city lockup in its first year was less than the $1.47 million that city and county officials had discussed to hold municipal inmates in the county jail.
That $1.2 million was considerably more than the $685,000 the city originally budgeted to hold inmates in the Tulsa County jail but much less than the $3 million to $4 million a year then-County Commissioner John Smaligo argued the city should pay.
There are 13 other municipal lockups in Oklahoma that appear to handle inmate medical needs as Tulsa does, according to the state Health Department.
“There are no contracts that provide 24/7 coverage to our knowledge,” said agency spokesman Tony Sellars. “But that is something that is not tracked by our service. All rely on (emergency medical services) and local hospitals.”
State law references “adequate medical care” as a standard for city and county jails but doesn’t appear to specifically define what constitutes adequate.
World Staff Writer Kevin Canfield contributed to this report.