Tulsa County jail officials’ visitation policy discriminates against those who can’t afford the 30 cents-per-minute charge for video calls, according to a lawsuit filed in Tulsa federal court on behalf of about 40 pre-trial detainees.
The lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma, seeks an injunction against the jail visitation policy, though it isn’t clear which policy is being criticized.
Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado approved a measure last week to prohibit outside visitors from entering the jail at 300 N. Denver Ave.
“Due to the outbreak of COVID-19 and out of an overabundance of caution and concern for the health and safety of the citizens of Tulsa County, we are suspending outside visitors to the David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center,” the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office said in a March 16 news release.
However, most of the pre-trial detainees who signed on to the lawsuit dated their signatures in December, well before the current COVID-19-geared policy was enacted.
Regalado was provided a copy of the complaint Tuesday.
TCSO spokesperson Casey Roebuck said the office will “vigorously defend against the claims” in the lawsuit.
“Under our facility policy visitation is viewed as a privilege and not a right and the Sheriff reserves the right to deny entry to any person believed to be a threat to the safety and security of the facility,” Roebuck said in a written statement.
The change last week at the jail suspended the public’s free use of a video conferencing system while at the jail. A pay-version of the same system, called Homewav, is accessible with an internet connection for 25 cents per minute. Roebuck said the 30 cents per minute rate quoted as late as last Tuesday has since been reduced to 25 cents per minute.
Detainees may also utilize a telephone system that costs 10 cents per minute.
“These limited requirements have taken a toll” on those whose parents and grandparents have died and/or who are married only by common law, the lawsuit states, apparently a reference to the pre-COVID-19 restrictions being enacted.
TCSO officials said when visitors were banned from the jail that the video conferencing system would still be available from outside the jail at 30 cents per minute, a reduction from the 50 cents per minute previously charged.
Regardless of which policy is being criticized, the lawsuit hits at the payment requirement.
“The pre-trial detainees stated herein do not have the funds to pay for video visit and some have issues of family obtaining the technology and knowledge to set it up due to disabilities,” according to the complaint.
Roebuck said while the jail normally limits in-person visitation to close family members, others may request a “special visit.”
Attorneys may also conduct confidential communications with jailed clients without cost, Roebuck said.
The lawsuit is signed by 44 inmates, most of whom signed it in December.
The lead plaintiff in the case, Derrick Stith, has been held in the jail since November 2017, when he was arrested on a murder charge linked to the hammer beating death of his girlfriend.
The Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office has filed paperwork in the case indicating that it will seek the death penalty against Stith. His trial is scheduled for Jan. 11, 2021.
Meanwhile, the immediate fate of the lawsuit was unclear.
Federal Court Clerk officials have sent Stith a letter stating that it is the court’s policy to require each pre-trial detainee to file their own individual civil rights complaint.
About 1,100 people currently are detained at the Tulsa County jail.
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