Interim Corrections Chief: Parts of Prison System ‘Not Even in the 20th Century’

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Michael Willmus/Oklahoma Watch

Joe Allbaugh, interim director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, describes himself as a quick decision maker who wants to make a difference.

After a little more than a month on the job and touring more than a dozen facilities, Interim Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh said he believes the agency is in a precarious position.

In an interview with Oklahoma Watch, Allbaugh, 63, said Oklahoma’s prison system is dangerously antiquated and changes are needed. Among possible moves: leasing dormant private prisons and closing portions of outdated and dangerous state-run facilities.

A former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and former campaign manager for President George W. Bush, Allbaugh cited an outdated process in which corrections staff calculate offenders’ early-release credits with a “Big Chief tablet and a calculator.” Many facilities are overcrowded, understaffed and crumbling, he said. Finances are tenuous: Mid-year budget cuts will cost the department around $12 million.

Following are excerpts from the interview:

Q: What was your initial impression of the prison system?

A: “My hope was that we would be in the 21st Century. I think in a lot of respects we’re not even in the 20th Century.”

Allbaugh picks up a nearly five-inch thick prisoner’s file and drops it on his desk with a solid thud. “This goes back to the territorial days of prisons. Yes, we have a computer with software that’s 30 years old, but it’s key punch, which is ripe for human error. So everything is backed up with this stuff – paper.

“We have a basketball gymnasium at Kate Barnard (Community Corrections Center); it’s full of records. We can’t even use it for the women over here. That’s a mistake. That’s an error I’m going to change. This (paper) drives the system. Without this, we’re blind. We’ve got to do something to get us into the 21st Century.”

Q: How do you fix the state corrections system?

A: “Progress is made in small steps. The first thing I have to do is start telling the story about the department, its condition, its dilapidated facilities. A lot of the facilities need to be closed. We’ve got two of them, OSR (Oklahoma State Reformatory) and OSP (Oklahoma State Penitentiary) that are both over 100 years old. We have locks and doors and all types of mechanisms that do not work, so our correctional officers are at risk – hourly. And we only pay those guys $12.78 per hour, and we’re down about 700 on correctional officers. Hopefully, one silver lining to the oil and gas bust will be we can get back some of the people who were with us before and new ones, getting them trained and getting them back on the yards. We are staffed about as minimally as we possibly can be.”

Interim Correction Director Joe Allbaugh says the state needs a "reality check" on its sentencing of nonviolent offenders.

Michael Willmus / Oklahoma Watch

Interim Correction Director Joe Allbaugh says the state needs a “reality check” on its sentencing of nonviolent offenders.

Q: Do you plan to shut down parts of the penitentiary, the reformatory or other facilities?

A: “I don’t have the capacity. The only thing we have today is relying on private prisons. I really don’t like that. The state is paying a premium to access those beds because they’re for-profit. There are two (private) facilities in Sayre and Watonga that are unused right now. I reached out to their owners to see if we might reach an accommodation to give us some relief and allow us to close some facilities…

“I’m not arguing for (leasing more private prison beds). I’m arguing for maybe leasing those two facilities, operated with our people, according to our manual, our systems, our standards, expanding our efficiency by closing down some of these units that are in bad disrepair.

“It’s going to cost more money (to lease private beds). We can do it cheaper. We can do it holistically – our way instead of their way. And we are confident in the system we have.

“We’re using facilities in a way they weren’t designed. We’re housing inmates in those units to correct the deficiencies in the system. Yes, they may be called temporary beds, but they’re permanent beds. In gymnasiums, dining halls.

“Most of these facilities weren’t designed as prisons. That’s error number one. But the state does what it can. It does have a budget problem.”

Q: Are you considering selling a state prison to a private company?

A: “No. Private prisons would not buy one unit we have today. Most of the way we get our property – it’s an old boys’ home or an old mental hospital, and we have to come in and put up fences and harden it.”

Q: Is retaining staff a problem?

A: “It’s tough. Our correctional officers’ turnover rate is approaching 35 percent annually. That means we’re always investing money in training and hosting the academies. All that stuff costs money. Our correctional staff is getting older.

“We’ve got to figure out what we can do as an agency to retain our correctional officer population.

“Unfortunately, our vision is: Can we make it to the end of the day? We don’t have a two-year program, a five-year program, a seven-year program. I’m hoping however long my tenure here is that we can establish some sort of planning group here internally and move the ball down the court and have a plan we can put before the Legislature that gives us certainty.

“We will have one (a long-range plan) on my watch. I just don’t what it will look like yet, on day 32.”

Q: How will you address growth in offenders?

A: “We’re on the wrong glide path when it comes to incarceration rates. In fiscal year 2017, we’ll probably add another 900 to 1,200 people into the system. We’re at 122 percent capacity system-wide, and if it weren’t for the private prisons, we would really be up the creek without a paddle.

“The $20 million (supplemental appropriation request) the governor so kindly gave us will buy us a few extra days, but it’s tied directly to how fast they’re being thrown into prison. We need to look at criminal justice and figure out better ways to address our first and second time offenders, especially the non-violent ones.

“The mandatory sentencing – we’re paying a price for that. And I understand the rationale. I’m just as much a law and order guy as the next person. But there has to be a reality check at some point when we’re predicting somewhere between 900 and 1,200 (more offenders) next year. And I don’t have 900 to 1,200 beds out there…

“Society has to take ownership of this issue. I understand that, I’m for it. But we have to be smart about how we are penalizing some of these offenders, particularly nonviolent offenders. Half our population is nonviolent offenders. Half our population is drug offenders, too, in some fashion. We’ve got to get our arms around that.”

Q: Do you think putting nonviolent offenders in prison with violent offenders contributes to recidivism?

A: “I don’t like it. It makes them hardened criminals, particularly if they don’t have anything to look forward to on their (early release) credits. If they’re nonviolent and in with a violent offender and have to make it to 85 percent (of time served) before they gain anything – forget it. They’re toast. Men and women. They’re going to be captured by the system. It’s a lot uglier than anybody knows.”

Q: What strengths do you bring to this job that are going to be needed for DOC?

A: “The ability to make a decision quickly. I’m a decision maker. That’s what I thrive on. Not only making a decision, you have to be able to implement it. Then you need to be sure people are held accountable, starting with myself…

“If there are problems in the system, it’s my responsibility to articulate those issues, instead of being on the back end. (Not doing so) is not dealing your cards on the table properly for all to see. That’s one thing I do – I call them like I see them. Some don’t like that, some people can’t handle that. That’s one thing about me – I’m direct.”

Q: With all of the challenges, why did you accept the position?

A: “I love making a difference. I believe we all exist to make a difference in something, whatever it is – your passion.”

Q: You have no corrections experience. Why choose to work for DOC?

A: “Why not? They need help. Lack of corrections experience doesn’t matter. What this job requires is management and the ability not to be shy to make decisions, ask a lot of questions. This place is filled with professionals in corrections, but I think the department has suffered somewhat over the years. I’m talking about decades, by growing people up in the system and promoting them to director. It’s always good to have a fresh set of eyes and ears to come in.”

Q: Three factors seem to be working against the department  – lack of manpower, deteriorating facilities and a continued rise in the number of inmates. Given the lack of funding, what’s the worst-case scenario?

A: “My job is to prevent that. I can design several worst-case scenarios. (What if) we have a meltdown at a prison? It’s very, very dangerous. That’s the worst-case scenario. The other end of the spectrum is the feds come in, as they have in other states, and say, ‘You have to start letting people out.’ That’s a problem, too. Then the public is immediately at risk.”

Q: How long do you intend to stay? Will you become permanent director?

A: “You have to ask the (corrections) board. I’m not sure they want me to stay. We’ll see what happens. The department needed a director, and I’m filling the shoes right now. If they want me to stay, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”