January 23, 2014

Private-Prison Company That Has Lobbied State Could Get More Inmates

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Oklahoma is considering moving additional inmates into halfway houses run by a private-prison company that has lobbied the governor’s office and legislators heavily for such a move, Oklahoma Watch has learned.

Jerry Massie, of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, confirmed on Monday that the agency is considering a shift of inmates from its own intermediate sanction or revocation beds to ones provided by Avalon Correctional Facilities.

Avalon operates halfway houses on contract with the state and has been pressing state officials since at least 2011 to shift inmates from state-run space to Avalon facilities.

Intermediate facilities or beds are used for short-term stays for inmates who violate probation or parole conditions; such placement is considered an alternative to prison incarceration. The expanded use of such facilities or beds was among the recommendations issued in early 2012 for implementation of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a program designed to lower the state’s high incarceration rates by developing alternatives to prison sentences for nonviolent offenders.

Avalon declined comment recently when contacted by Oklahoma Watch about its contact with Gov. Mary Fallin’s senior staff members related to the justice initiative.

Avalon  began writing letters to Department of Corrections officials in 2011, asking the state to set up an “intermediate sanction facility” at one of its halfway houses.

On April 5, 2012, Avalon President Brian Costello sent Justin Jones, then director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, a letter about the potential need for intermediate sanction or revocation bed space under the JRI. The letter  proposed that the corrections department modify its contract, or draft a new contract, with Avalon to provide intermediate facility space. In May, Jones declined the offer.

In March 2013, Avalon representatives met with staff members of Gov. Mary Fallin’s office to press their case, according to an email that Costello wrote after the meeting and that was among more than 8,000 documents released by Fallin’s office in late November.

In the email, Costello alleges that the corrections department is not complying with a law requiring nonviolent offenders to be placed in a step-down facility for a specified period prior to release.

In an interview with Oklahoma Watch, Jones, who resigned as director earlier this year, denied that the agency was out of compliance. On Monday, Massie also denied the department was not complying with requirements.

Steve Mullins, general counsel for the governor, has said proposals such as Avalon’s presented to the governor’s office are always forwarded to the corrections department for consideration.

Jones said that he has  Sen. Clark Jolley, chairman of the appropriations committee, had visited with him more than once about Avalon’s role in providing services to inmates. Jones did not elaborate on what was discussed.