Two Views: Is It Good for Oklahoma to Expand Use of Private Prisons?

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Oklahoma prisons continue to see a growth in inmates, who are pushed into a system that’s bursting at the seams.

The number of inmates housed at state-run and private prisons in Oklahoma now exceeds 26,700 and is only expected to rise. Meanwhile, the Department of Corrections budget is stagnant, although corrections officials have discussed seeking additional funds from the Legislature before the end of this fiscal year.

Cramped conditions at state prisons have led to an increased use of private-prison beds in the state. Over the past year, the number of private-prison beds leased by the state has risen by about 1,000 inmates, to more than 5,800.

That number soon could increase even more, say two members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives who are working on criminal justice issues.

Rep. Cory Williams

Rep. Cory Williams

“It’s a crisis in the state,” said Rep. Cory Williams, D-Stillwater, who announced that his re-election campaign next year would focus on criminal justice reform. “I don’t think the general population has any idea of the magnitude.”

The state prison system is running at more than 98 percent capacity, and inmates are backed up at county jails across the state, waiting for bed space at prisons to open.

Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Laverne, who is overseeing several corrections-related interim studies, said overcrowding at state facilities has compromised public safety. Staffing levels hover around 60 percent, causing correctional officers to work multiple double shifts per week at many of the prisons, he said.

Rep. Gus Blackwell

Rep. Gus Blackwell

Blackwell said increasing private-prison bed space by about 3,000 beds would alleviate some of the pressure on the state system.

While the three private prisons the state currently contracts with are at near-capacity, two other facilities — the Diamondback facility in Watonga and the Great Plains facility in Hinton — remain vacant. Both facilities have been working to fill bed space with out-of-state inmates. Moving inmates to one or both of those facilities would help the state reduce hours for correctional officers, Blackwell said.

Williams, however, is more critical of an increasing reliance on private prisons, though he concedes they may be needed in the short term.

The answer to the corrections overcrowding “is not adding more space,” he said. “We’re just warehousing.”

Moving inmates to private prisons “is a slippery slope” that could lead to wasteful spending, Williams said. Private-prison contracts often require states to guarantee payment for a minimum capacity. If Oklahoma is able to reduce its prison population in coming years, it could end up paying for unfilled private-prison beds. “How do we back out of that later?”

Blackwell and Williams agree that while private prisons might be needed in the short-term, long-term reform is needed to address prison overcrowding.

“We’ve got to look at who we’re locking up,” Blackwell said, referring to non-violent offenders who might better be served in a community corrections setting instead of costlier prisons.

Williams said the focus should be on locking up violent offenders, not drug and non-violent offenders, who make up 52 percent of the state’s inmates, according to the Department of Corrections. Overall, Oklahoma’s prison population has grown to nearly 27,000 inmates, from about 4,000 in 1978. The state needs to find ways to keep low-level offenders out of prison, he said.

“We care more about violent offenders than we do about a joint,” he said. “They will call me soft on crime, and that’s okay.”

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  • Three and a half years ago, the Music Men from troubled Avalon corrections were scamming the residents of Hennessey, claiming their for-profit prison would pay well (a lie) and not present a danger to the public (a lie) and would promote economic development (still another lie). I live 60 miles north of Hennessey.

    Oklahomans should know better, especially considering the riots at Watonga (which has been closed for years) involving Arizona prisoners in 2004, and Sayre (often closed, rioted last year) involving Californians. Last week prisoners escaped in Weatherford from a for-profit prisoner transportation corporation from Tennessee.

    I’ve been attending a murder trial in Albuquerque for the past two months. It and subsequent appeals will cost federal taxpayers millions as the death penalty has been requested. A retired Tecumseh, Okla., couple were murdered in New Mexico by the for-profit prison escapees. That extremely poorly constructed prison was built by Dominion, of Edmond, Oklahoma, which built their substandard pens all over the country. They even dumped a deficient one on Oklahoma, which is now the state’s women’s prison.

    he grieving family has sat through months of proceedings in New Mexico and Arizona.

    If the ringleader is convicted, he will join Sherman Lamont Fields, of Littlefield, Texas, on the federal death row. He promised a for-profit prison guard $5,000 for the key that would allow him to escape. He went to the local hospital where his ex-girlfriend was caring for her infant by another man, kidnapped and murdered her.

    The Arizona escape was very like the one in Hinton four years ago, where the for-profit prison refused to fix its fences and teach its employees professional correctional techniques including counting, tool security (the inmates used wire cutters that Cornell corrections had not bothered to restrict or account for) and vigilance.

    Two septuagenarian women were kidnapped, carjacked and taken hostage, one in Hinton, another in Oklahoma City, but the prison never even reported the escape, though the Arizona prison only waited three hours to report. Even then, Management and Training Corporation didn’t know which prisoners had escaped.

    The for-profit prison industry has generated tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to Oklahoma legislators and executives, which generates a good deal of support. Almost all went to Republicans, of course, but even ethically compromised Ron Kirby, GEO Group’s own legislator in Lawton, showed that cooperative Democrats could get funding.

  • Joshua Tonihka

    Its sad to say that you are only looking for a temporary solution to a permanent problem. The problem isnt where you should put these people its the amount of people you are taking in because of marijuana. Quit arresting non-violent drug offenders and sending them to jail for years at a time. The war on drugs was, is, and always will be a failure. Quit damning these people to prison for a victimless crime.