Q: Are inmates in Oklahoma’s private prisons different than those in state-run prisons?
A: A recently released study by a university researcher has found that private prisons in Oklahoma have more inmates who are non-white and more who are under age 50 than do state-run prisons.
The report by Christopher Petrella, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California at Berkley, compares the racial makeup and age of minimum and medium-security prisoners at five public prisons with that of inmates at two private prisons.
Petrella’s study, based in data from 2012 and 2013, found that in the public prisons, 36 percent of inmates were age 50 or older, compared with 11 percent for the private prisons. Forty-four percent of public-facility inmates were non-whites, compared to 57 percent in private prisons.
Among the nine states studied, all with large prison populations, Oklahoma and Texas had the most noticeable age and race disparities between public and private prisons. The study did not examine gender, but the Oklahoma Department of Corrections says there are no female inmates in private prisons.
Petrella suggested racial disparities exist because private prison operators have contracts that allow them to transfer prisoners with costly health problems, leaving a younger prison population. Those inmates are more likely to be minorities because non-whites tend to be convicted at younger ages, he said. Prisoners over age 50 are most likely to be non-Hispanic whites, according to Department of Justice research.
“The study directly challenges the ways in which private prison companies make claims of efficiency,” Petrella said. “If we’re not comparing the same types of prisoner profiles, then it’s impossible to make an adequate cost-comparison.”
Sick inmates and those whose security levels rise are often transferred to public prisons, Department of Corrections spokesman Jerry Massie said.
“As a practice, we try to rotate people in and out of private and public prisons so they don’t have to spend their whole incarceration in one facility,” Massie said.
Petrella said contractual exemptions create racial disparities and allow private prisons to reduce the number of costly prisoners in its facilities.
Despite that, Oklahoma reports spending more per day on many private-prison inmates. At a Board of Corrections meeting in April 2013, corrections officials said the state spends on average of $38.95 per day on medium-security inmates and $37.39 on minimum-security inmates. It contracts to pay private prisons more than $40 per day per inmate.
The public prisons studied by Petrella are the Oklahoma State Reformatory and Dick Conner, James Crabtree, Joseph Harp and Mack Alford Corrections Centers. The private prisons are the Davis Correctional Facility, operated by Corrections Corporation of America, and the Lawton Correctional Facility, run by Geo Group Inc.