The Oklahoma Board of Corrections is looking at three options to deal with overcrowding at the state’s prison facilities: expanding public prisons, contracting for more private-prison beds, and buying or leasing one of the state’s two empty private prisons.
At its Thursday meeting, the board approved a measure allowing the Department of Corrections to draw up a request for proposals from private prison companies to provide an additional 350 to 2,000 medium-security prison beds for state inmates.
The board also voted to request more funding this fiscal year to pay for using private-prison beds and seek more funds for fiscal 2015 to give a pay raise to corrections officers and support staff.
As of the end of December, 5,824 Department of Corrections inmates, or more than a fourth of the total prison population, were in private prisons, according to the agency’s latest inmate count. An additional 1,126 inmates were in contracted halfway houses and 518 were being held in contracted county jails.
A document formally requesting proposals to use more private-prison space should be completed and issued within the next 30 days, said Greg Williams, administrator for the Department of Corrections’ private prisons and jails division.
“We are experiencing, and project to experience, growth this year and next year that will exceed the state resources currently available,” Williams told the board.
Authorization for the request for proposals passed the board 6-1, with board member Earnest Ware dissenting.
Board Secretary Steve Burrage said the request was needed to evaluate one of the three options the board is considering to find more room to house inmates, and no final decision on which direction the board will take has yet been made.
On Nov. 21, the Board of Corrections held a special meeting at the Quartz Mountain Resort in Lone Wolf to discuss ways to address the state’s overflowing prison population.
More than 1,500 Department of Corrections inmates are backed up in county jails throughout the state, and many counties are taking legal action against the department as a result of the backup.
Despite the corrections department adding 1,285 beds between July 2011 and October 2013, the effort has not been enough to address the growth in the number of prisoners, which increased by 1,455 during that time, Laura Pitman, deputy director of institutions, told the board at the November meeting, according to detailed minutes.
The minutes show that Pitman told the board that the department would need between 450 and 500 beds by July this year, when the fiscal year ends, and another 750 to 800 beds by July 2015 to address projected growth.
Those additional beds don’t take into account the inmates backlogged in county jails, she told the board.
The board was then presented with three options:
• Expanding public facility bed space by re-opening a currently closed cell house at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester and using gymnasiums at other state facilities to house prisoners. Although this would provide additional beds, the already low staffing levels at the prisons, the layout of the prisons, security concerns and the cost of implementing the plan may pose problems.
• Expanding the use of contracted bed space. Current unused space includes 4,160 private-prison, 142 county-jail and 526 halfway-house beds. However, long-term availability of the bed space is in question and it may take months to actually move inmates into those beds.
• Purchasing or leasing a private prison. Under state law, the department can give a private prison vendor a 120-day notice of the state’s intent to purchase or lease a facility, and the vendor would not have a choice on whether or not to sell the property. A private-prison company can also voluntarily sell a facility. There are two empty private prison facilities in Oklahoma: Diamondback Correctional Facility in Watonga, owned by Corrections Corporation of America, and Great Plains Correctional Facility in Hinton, operated by Geo Group Inc. Purchasing one could cost the state between $104 million and $130 million, Pitman said.
According to the minutes, board members Linda Neal, Gene Haynes and Michael Roach said board members have tried speaking with legislators about changing sentencing laws to reduce the high number of inmates, but lawmakers are not interested.
On Thursday, Burrage said he was not sure exactly when the board would decide which option to go with, but a decision would likely be made soon.
Last year, the companies that oversee vacant private prisons in Hinton and Watonga began posting jobs openings or holding job fairs to staff the prisons. Officials from California toured the prisons to explore whether to transfer inmates from that state to the Oklahoma private prisons. However, California corrections officials were ordered not to send offenders to out-of-state prisons. Oklahoma had declined to move inmates into the Hinton prison because of budget constraints, Pitman said at the Nov. 21 meeting.
In other business during Thursday’s meeting, the board approved an amendment to the department’s 2015 budget request that would give correctional officers and support staff a pay hike. The requested $14.2 million increase would bump correctional officer starting wages from around $11.83 to $14 per hour.
The department is also seeking a $31.5 million funding increase to pay for contracted bed space next year, bringing the total budget request to $509 million, an increase of $45.7 million.
The board also approved a supplemental funding request for the current fiscal year of $13.3 million to be able to pay for its contracted prison, jail and halfway house beds.
In addition, the board conducted interviews on Wednesday and Thursday to fill the Department of Corrections director position. Long-time director Justin Jones resigned in October.
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism service that produces in-depth and investigative content on important public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to oklahomawatch.org
Clifton Adcock can be reached at cadcock@Oklahomawatch.org