Nowata, OK – The Nowata County Sheriff and most of her department resigned on Monday in response to a judge’s order that the sheriff reopen the county jail or be held in contempt of court.
In her resignation letter, Nowata County Sheriff Terry Sue Barnett said that she cannot, “in good conscience” comply with the order because of the unaddressed safety risks the facility poses to staff and inmates.
The Nowata County jail was closed in February, after a carbon monoxide leak sent four sheriff’s office employees to the emergency room, Sheriff Barnett explained.
The county’s inmates were moved to the Washington County jail in Bartlesville, Tulsa World reported.
The sheriff also cited exposed wiring, the lack of a mandated fire alarm system, mold, and leaking methane gas from improperly installed sewer lines as major issues affecting the safety of the facility.
A snake even fell on one inmate’s head as he was opening a door inside the jail, she said.
An auditor with the American Correctional Association toured the facility in March, and spotted enough problems to compile a 69-page report, The Washington Post reported.
None of those issues have been addressed by the county, according to Sheriff Barnett.
According to the sheriff, Nowata County District Court Judge Carl Gibson asked to meet with her on March 14 to discuss his concerns with housing inmates out-of-county, Tulsa World reported.
“He felt that Nowata County was going to become a train wreck if we continued to house prisoners elsewhere,” Sheriff Barnett recounted. “He stated to me, ‘Let’s say you go to Greece for two weeks, and when you come back, the jail is open and has passed all inspections and the prisoners are returned.’”
The sheriff alleged that Gibson “tried to bribe” her further by telling her that “he felt like he could get [her] salary up to around $75,000,” and that he would also “put paperwork in place” to help protect her from liability with regards to the risks at the jail.
“I looked straight at the judge and asked him, ‘Are you compromising my integrity?’” Sheriff Barnett told Tulsa World. “The judge never responded…[I] informed him under no circumstances will I shove anything under the carpet concerning Nowata County.”
Sheriff Barnett told the paper that she believes the county is “corrupt,” and that she hoped to affect change when she was elected in 2018.
“When I was elected, I said I would do the right thing,” she said. “I was hopeful to see change in Nowata County. But now I see without support it is only continuing to create a dangerous situation. Instead of looking for solutions, many would prefer to hope and pray that nothing will happen.”
“I will not sweep these things under the carpet,” the sheriff continued. “I will continue to support Nowata County, but under this environment it is impossible for me to continue.”
Nowata County Undersheriff Mark Kirschner said that Gibson believes the county cannot afford to keep housing inmates in outside facilities.
But continuing to do so is far less expensive than it would be to correct the problems at the Nowata County jail, Undersheriff Kirschner explained.
“I came in here, was ordered up here by the judge, and he basically said if I don’t get prisoners back over here, I would be in contempt and go to jail,” the undersheriff said.
Sheriff Barnett said that Gibson told her he was “going to mandate” her to transport inmates back to the Nowata County jail immediately, or that she would be held in contempt of court.
“I guess Nowata County will continue their search for a sheriff who will do what they want, because I am not that sheriff,” the sheriff told KOTV. “To have a judge order you to bring inmates back to that facility when nothing has been done is inexcusable.”
The sheriff, undersheriff, head dispatcher, corrections officers, five deputies, and K9 Ranger all resigned from the department on Monday.
Several volunteer dispatchers stayed behind to answer phones, KOTV reported.
The now-former sheriff and undersheriff’s attorney, Paul DeMuro, addressed Gibson during a court hearing about the jail’s safety status on Tuesday.
“This was a flat ambush job used to air your personal grievances against this sheriff,” DeMuro told him, according to Tulsa World. “In the record that’s been established, the only thing I heard was that the jail needed to be shut down in November because there were no repairs, and it still hasn’t been repaired.”
Nowata County commissioners accepted Sheriff Barnett’s resignation on Wednesday morning.
The county appointed retired Nowata County Sheriff’s Office Major Mirta Hallett as interim sheriff.