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 Among possible moves: leasing dormant private prisons and closing portions of outdated and dangerous state-run facilities.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of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and former campaign manager for President George W. Bush, Allbaugh cited an outdated process in which corrections staff calculate offenders’ early-release credits with a “Big Chief tablet and a calculator.”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.”

  • mike

    Not as bad as he could be (see the last director), but still the kind of disingenuousness that has pervaded the politics of OK corrections, not its operations, for the decades he mentions. The facts are that OK, in the mid-90s, passed a corrections reform proposal that had passed in NC as well. The DAs, sheriffs, and so-called victims’ groups killed the proposal after Governor Keating got burned by Lamonte Fields, whose early release let him kill a few days earlier the people his grandmother swore he was going to kill even if he hadn’t been early released. Keating brought in his best man from his wedding, a former FBI guy who then headed the Corrections Corporation of America, to pro bono study the OK prison system and, surprise, deduce that the system needed more prisons of the private variety. In the meantime, NC implemented what OK rejected and has seen its crime rates, particularly violent crime rates, reduced far below OK’s over the same period, but even lower than the national average – which gets high praise. Politics, not administration.

    The private prison industry wined, dined and paid for inaugurations of state officials who in turn beggared the state prison system intentionally to make it decrepit to justify using more and more private companies. The highlight of that campaign was a legislated audit by an independent firm that was intended to show that OK’s system was screwed up by all these “directors who came up through the system.” Unfortunately, the auditors actually were independent and ended up, besides taking home almost a million dollars of taxpayer money, testifying that the system worked far better than the state deserved thanks to those incompetents the current director condemns. The audit also made recommendations that echo the article above and that was almost a decade ago.

    Oklahoma Watch covered well the development and destruction of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. Once again, the current governor was at the forefront of all this and overseeing with high dudgeon the removal of the use of revolving funds from departmental control. A new and incompetent director, no funds to holding the chicken wire in place, voila! The disaster that even a FEMA head who oversaw Katrina could understand.

  • Robert

    Guess I am unclear what this guy said that has you so riled up. Seems that he echoes many of your concerns?

  • Marsha

    He is in the pocket of private prisons if you ask me as he pushing for them. Private prisons are a drain on our tax dollars and are not monitored or held to the same values as state prisons thus they can treat people any way they like,they hire incompetent professional staff who has no idea what they are doing, they violate the rights of disabled inmates right and left and do not care as the monitoring system for them is a joke- They are never taken to task unless you raise heck all the way to the state capitol and then that a joke as they are Mary Hester biggest campaign donors

  • Jan Cannaday, Retired DOC 2014

    Way to go Joe! The agency was built on the good-ole-boy mindset & had not much to do with expertise; that mentality played out up & down the chain of command deeply impacting morale at every institution. Someone with the courage & where with all to effect change must take authority over those circumstances and hold everyone accountable regardless of their position, political connections or “best buds” ~ kick some butt Joe Allbaugh, you have a big audience!

  • Linda Mardis

    The idea Interim Director Allbaugh has of leasing an entire private facility is a good one. The problem with so many state facilities is not the policies, staff or the system; but the actual physical, dilapidated structure that accommodates them. Take an existing state-of-the-art structure, add state-trained personnel and state-sanctioned policies & procedures, and you’ve got something you can take to the next level.

  • Val Reed

    The dilemma of Oklahoma’s prison system is the fault of non other than Oklahomans themselves. Our long-term prison sentences for non-violent crimes resulted in the hopeless overcrowded prisons we now experience. We are trying to remedy over-crowding with drug courts and rehab programs, something that should have been done long ago. Except now that we are trying to implement those remedies, we are hopelessly underfunded because of the 6% tax cut, at a time of depressed gas and oil income and revenue. Tax payers, sometimes we have to stand tall and dig deep in order to supply the cold hard cash to keep our communities safe, help our friends and neighbors with emotional as well as physical problems for the benefit of all. Kudos to Mr. Allbaugh for taking on this important position.

  • Harold

    One of the worst things that the State of Oklahoma did away with is Community Service Sentencing Program otherwise known as CSSP. With CSSP offenders were sentenced in non violent crimes to serve time in their local county jails. During their sentence the offenders were required to work in their local communities for non profit entities, like, cities, towns, counties, Sr. Citizen Centers and other non profit groups. The offender didn’t only get a chance give back to the communities that they reside, some were actually reformed and others went on to aspire to be good and sometimes great productive citizens. For some reason the state did away with this program because it cost too much money. At the time the jails in which the offenders were sentenced to received $27.00 a day to house these inmates. Of course to house inmates it cost money, including in your local county jails. The $27.00 a day is just a fraction as to what it cost the state to house offenders in the state DOC, private prisons, and work centers. The average cost to house an offender in our state prisons are between $40.00 and $75.00 a day. They pay private prisons, $40.00 to $60.00 aday. They pay work center approximately $55.00 a day to house offenders. With that said don’t it make logical sense to house these non violent offenders in the local county jails for the price of $27.00 a day. Well of course, local county jails don’t and can’t give big contributions to politician like the owners and operators of private prisons. That could be one of the reasons. I have personally visited the capital on many occasions to asked law makers to explore this idea of CSSP again. Most of the time it seems like my request either fall on deaf ears, or I get that deer in the headlight look from those who are making laws and writing laws that don’t even know what I am talking about. I always end my conversation with those lawmaker with, “it is a common sense solution, just do the math.”
    Maybe that’s why I can’t get any support.

  • Malenda Brooks

    Drug courts and other community sentencing programs are great if run right. Those offenders should still have due process rights….that is written into the law governing it. My son has been trying for three years to get a drug court termination appeal. He had no due process. He was jailed for four months before he was taken before a judge, and was never offered bond. His court appointed attorney waited until the last minute to file, then did not ask for the right kind of appeal, so he has to go through a different process to have it heard. At every stage there have been stall tactics and roadblocks we have had to manuever around. He was instructed to drug test, the test was inconclusive so it was sent to California for further testing. There was no chain of custody and the results of the test that revoked him had another drug court participants name on it. The drug court administrator instructed the lab to change the name on the report…and the judge allowed this to go through. These programs have the propensity for abuse because they are PRIVATE, we cant even get our own documents from them.

  • PD

    Interesting article and informed comments by readers. Let me add my two cents as someone who held leadership positions in the CJ system in a number of states other than OK. Unless and until elected officials find the courage to admit that their rhetoric on who is tougher on crime is an expensive failure, we will continue to get these wrong headed correctional policies. In short,leadership means not saying what you think people want to hear, but what needs to be heard. When the only thing you have in your toolbox is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
    Time for judges and DA’s to quit hiding behind bumper sticker policies and tell people the truth about our failed policies. It is also time for voters to require more from our leadership than more incarceration when we know that a solid education, jobs, decent housing and a sense of hope should become a part of any plan to deal with crime and deviance.

  • Ray Crawford

    Here is part of the Problem in Oklahoma. Pot is illegal. I get it, You live in a state where they don’t trust the citizens with even full strength beer. I live in a state that has legal Marijuana, we have collected in excess of 100 million dollars in Tax money, quit locking up marijuana users and our public schools get at least 40 million every year. Our crime hasn’t increased, No one has died as a result of Marijuana use anywhere ever yet Hydrocodone is still killing 140 Oklahomans per year. Alcohol is also deadly yet liquor stores are all over the place in Oklahoma as are bars. 102,000 people moved to Colorado in 2015. Our housing market is among the strongest in the country. What about Oklahoma ? How many vacant dwellings are there in OKC right now ? 15,000 ? Clearly this is not a state that is conducive to freedom and keeping crime rates low. How many small town cops and chiefs of Police have been arrested for Meth in Oklahoma ? Lets face it. Your Oil money is in Texas with Boone Pickens and his cronies. Oklahoma is a bankrupt State ran by corrupt businessmen. Bad bridges, bad roads, State Parks are ran down, low wages, high crime. I think I would focus more on making my State great instead of whos college team is going to get beat by Texas again for the umpteenth time.