Okla. DOC seeking $1.6B to accommodate soaring inmate population

Oklahoma Department of Corrections communications director Terri Watkins said she expects the state''s prison population to grow 25 percent over the next 10 years


By Jacob Mcguire And Mack Burke
The Norman Transcript, Okla.

NORMAN, Okla. —  Since 2010, more than 30 states have seen a decrease in prison populations. Oklahoma is trending in the other direction, and it doesn't have the cell space to keep up.

"If Oklahoma truly wants to incarcerate that many people, [Oklahomans] will end up having to pay for it," Former Oklahoma House Speaker Kris Steele said.

Oklahoma Department of Corrections communications director Terri Watkins said she expects the state's prison population to grow 25 percent over the next 10 years.

To combat the rising tide, DOC is pushing to appropriate more than $1.6 billion for Fiscal Year 2018, including $850 million for two new medium-security facilities.

"That's not a request," Watkins said. "That's what we need."

Watkins said only seven of the state's 17 prisons were built to be prisons, and two of those facilities were built in 1910. She said the rest are turn-of-the-century tuberculosis hospitals, Depression-era camps and other converted facilities.

"We have not taken advantage, as has the rest of the world, with modern facilities," DOC Director Joe M. Allbaugh said. "The vast majority of our facilities are hand-me-down facilities."

Oklahoma began contracting with private prisons in the 1990s. Watkins said Oklahoma had a choice: build more prisons or contract with private prisons.

"The state chose private prisons," Watkins said. "Now, there is no room at the inn if we shut down the private prisons. We do not have a place to put the 5,900 inmates that are currently being housed in private prisons in Oklahoma, as of this morning (Jan. 18)."

Steele fears overcrowding will force Oklahoma to lean more on private prisons.

"In my opinion, private prisons are meant to act as a temporary stopgap for when the prison population surpasses capacity," he said. "However, Oklahoma has become very reliant on private prisons, and those temporary inmates are becoming permanent inmates."

In addition, Steele said private prisons have no incentive to reduce recidivism rates and actually benefit from the state's inmate surplus.

According to DOC records, the state spent an estimated $92 million on private prisons in 2015.

"There's no question that if the legislature doesn't appropriate the dollars to construct the new facilities DOC is proposing, then Oklahoma will have to have more reliance on private prisons," Steele said. "There won't be any other option."

Steele said Oklahoma has an incarceration rate 78 percent higher than the national average. It also has the highest incarceration rate for women and the third highest incarceration rate for men. Most are non-violent offenders imprisoned for drug-related crimes.

According to Oklahoma DOC records, 61,304 people are in the DOC system: 26,659 in state prisons, 1,653 in county jails awaiting transfer and 39,992 under probationary supervision.

"There are approximately 1,800 backed into county jails because we don't have enough room for them," Watkins said. "So, I believe the director has said he's not a huge fan of private prisons. The question becomes where do you put 5,900 people? We're at 108 percent capacity."

The DOC doles out $1.5 million a month to counties for housing those 1,800 inmates. But county officials across the state say that's not enough.

Cleveland County Undersheriff Rhett Burnett said the reimbursement rate for state prisoners awaiting DOC transfer is still $27 per day, compared to the $48 rate Sheriff Joe Lester said the jail receives for housing city prisoners.

Either way, Lester said the 574-inmate capacity Cleveland County Detention Center doesn't have extra room for state prisoners.

"We've got enough going on with our own prisoners without creating an extra burden on the taxpayers," he said.

Lester said he supports Allbaugh's mission to build new state prisons, and Steele called the move necessary.

"When we start to talk about the need for an additional $2 billion for incarceration in Oklahoma, we can effectively set aside any sort of meaningful discussions on adequate funding for health care, transportation, services for children in at-risk situations or any other service that is important because we are going to have to spend all of this money on locking people up," Steele said.

According to a 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Education, Oklahoma's combined state and local corrections expenditures jumped from about $159 million in 1980 to about $700 million in 2013. That represents an increase of 341 percent. By comparison, education spending during that period jumped 69 percent.

While the DOC fights for a bigger piece of the state budget pie, lawmakers are feeling pressure to reduce the number of inmates.

Steele said passing State Question 780, which reclassified certain drug and property crimes as misdemeanors, and accompanying SQ 781, which used money saved to fund rehab programs, is just the beginning.

"They are pieces of the puzzle to reduce the prison population, but they aren't nearly enough," he said. "The reason we have the highest incarceration rate in the country is because, in Oklahoma, we tend to incarcerate people for non-violent offenses that no other state incarcerates for. The police reforms that are being discussed within Gov. Mary Fallin's justice reform team will ultimately make a determination to see if there is a better approach for taking care of non-violent offenders."
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(c)2017 The Norman Transcript (Norman, Okla.)

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