Razor-wire fencing surrounds the Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington.
Razor-wire fencing surrounds the Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington. Credit: Ben Fenwick / Oklahoma Watch

Pushing to reduce prison overcrowding, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections has quietly changed its policies to give early releases to greater numbers of violent and sex offenders, according to agency documents obtained by Oklahoma Watch.

The department is doing so by relaxing policies that determine which types of inmates can receive early-release credits, when those credits can be given, and how many credits offenders can receive, corrections department records show.

Previously, for example, inmates convicted of violent or sex crimes, such as murder, robbery, or rape, who lost early-release credits because of “misconducts” in prison were not eligible for restored credits. They are eligible now.

These types of inmates are among the more than 1,500 offenders, convicted of violent or non-violent crimes, that the department has released since March using restored credits.

At least dozens of those prisoners have since been arrested for other crimes, including murder, bank robbery and sexual assault, according to a check of court and county-jail records in a sampling of counties. One prisoner charged with bank robbery in June had been denied parole twice, in 2012 and 2013.

Some law enforcement officials say the stepped-up early releases are putting public safety at risk, but corrections officials maintain that’s not the case.

Officials have said publicly that accelerated releases of inmates through restored credits did not represent a policy change, only a more efficient use of existing policy. But Oklahoma Watch’s review of copies of department memos and a comparison of old and new policies show the agency granted exceptions to policies, then revised the policies, to enable the early releases. The DOC has revised its policies on restored credits four times this year.

Department memos and other records show the Corrections Department made other key changes to increase releases of inmates:

The agency doubled the maximum number of certain early-release credits that can be earned by or restored to inmates.

The DOC altered a policy to allow credits to be earned for inmates serving “split life sentences,” which typically require inmates to spend 20 to 30 years in prison and the rest of their life on probation. The change was retroactive, meaning credits were awarded going back to the first day of incarceration. One sex offender was given 12 years worth of credits and released on Dec. 10.

The department reversed a policy that banned restoration of credits to inmates who are in a punishment period following a misconduct in prison. Now inmates can regain credits within those periods — six months to two years, depending on the infraction — and be released early. That includes inmates with violations for escape, assaulting a staff member, rioting or possessing a weapon.

Officials decided that a state law banning inmates convicted of drug trafficking from getting credits does not apply to those convicted of aggravated drug trafficking, a worse crime. Aggravated means an additional factor was involved, such as a large amount of drugs – 1,000 pounds vs. 25 pounds of marijuana, for example — or a prior criminal record.

The changes were part of an effort to reduce overcrowding in prisons. In August, two-thirds of prisons were officially over capacity, in part because about 3,000 state inmates had been moved from county jails into prisons. Prisons also were full because efforts to reduce incarceration, such as a Justice Reinvestment Initiative offering alternative treatment for nonviolent offenders, had stalled, advocates of the initiative said.

Speedy Exits

Department records reveal a sense of urgency to get inmates out of prison.

A March 10 memo sent by Ed Evans, associate corrections director, to all facility heads had an attachment saying registration paperwork for sex and violent offenders whose credits were restored must be “completed immediately and forwarded to the Sex Offender Registration Unit so that their release is delayed no longer than necessary.

“Due to the short notice, staff will need to assist the offenders in contacting family and/or friends to arrange their transportation home,” the attachment said.

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said he’s concerned that accelerated releases are causing a danger to the public.

“I think what you’re going to see within a year, maybe less, is a spike in crime by the offenders released to the street,” said Prater. “They’ve shown they can’t behave behind the walls. They’re certainly not going to behave on the outside without supervision.”

Corrections Director Robert Patton maintained the releases are not a threat to public safety. The department is simply fulfilling the law for early-release credits approved by the legislature, he said.

“Am I going to tell you that everyone I release will never come back to prison again? Of course not,” Patton said. “But what I can tell you is that the only way the system can be effective is if there’s a way to earn (early-release credits) back.” It is a “carrot and stick” approach, he said.

Gov. Mary Fallin told Oklahoma Watch, “There has to be a fine balance between having the system and protecting the public … If there’s an incentive for an inmate to behave because they have the opportunity to earn good time credits, that certainly helps correctional officers and employees with those inmates.”

Corrections Director Robert C. Patton
Corrections Director Robert C. Patton

Easing a ‘Jail Backup’

When Patton took over the director’s job on Feb. 18, the backup of state inmates in jails was already a serious concern.

County jail officials were criticizing the state’s low reimbursement rate for housing state inmates and slow response in picking them up.

Minutes from a November 2013 Board of Corrections meeting show staff and board members were looking at the problem. Terri Watkins, director of DOC communications, said Patton immediately began working on the issue and meeting with law enforcement officials.

Prater said that shortly before taking over as director, Patton visited with him and others at the District Attorneys Council meeting and talked about using restored-credits to step up releases.

“Patton told us they were going to be very careful about who they released and would use evidence-based assessments of who they released,” Prater said. “I don’t believe that’s occurred.”

Patton has said the department initially believed the jail backup was about 1,900 prisoners, but the number turned out to be closer to 3,000.

At a corrections board meeting on April 3, Laura Pitman, division manager for field support, said that restoring early-release credits to shrink the prison population was the first phase of emptying the jails, board minutes show. Beginning March 10, offenders who had lost credits because of violations “were reviewed for possible restoration of those lost credits if the return resulted in an immediate discharge,” she said.

Between March 10 and March 28, the prison system released 436 prisoners using restored credits, the April 3 minutes show.

In October, Patton told a legislative panel that removing inmates from the jails had saved at least $11 million. However, “it’s much more than about the dollar figure – it’s preparing inmates for release into society,” Patton told legislators, referring to lack of rehabilitative programs in jails. “It is my responsibility, to the best of my ability and within my budget, to prepare offenders for release. That’s what correctional systems are about.”

Relaxing Restrictions

Most inmates can earn early-release credits. There are two basic types: credits for just being incarcerated, and “achievement credits” for good behavior or participating in prison programs, such as education and substance-abuse treatment. Each credit represents one day of early release. Some prisoners accumulate hundreds or thousands of credits.

Prison Population Stats

The credits are used as an incentive for inmates to behave well and to seek rehabilitation as well a way for prison officers to control the inmate population.

When state inmates break rules or laws in prison or in a county jail, they can lose credits. Credits can be restored, with restrictions.

Corrections Department memos and policy records obtained by Oklahoma Watch document the loosening of restrictions for earning and restoring credits.

In July, for example, the department made a policy change that eliminated the maximum number of early-release days – 365 – that could be restored to an inmate. The maximum became unlimited. As a result, some prisoners released earlier this year had thousands of credits restored to them. In November, the department reinstated a cap, at 730 days.

The only inmates ineligible to have credits restored are those with active misconducts in prison – meaning the violation occurred within the previous six months to two years – that would also likely lead to criminal charges: killing another person, participating in an act that killed another person, or rape/forced sex.

The department also doubled the number of achievement credits that can be earned in some programs, such as halfway-house work release. It doubled the number of credits awarded for continued good behavior, too, from 30 to 60 for four months without a misconduct.

Another change involved inmates serving time for “85 percent” crimes – violent, drug or sex crimes requiring that at least 85 percent of sentences be served. Those offenders generally cannot receive early-release credits until after they have reached the 85 percent mark.

Under old policies, such inmates who violated rules in prison and lost their credits could not have any credits restored. The new policy allows for restoring credits if the inmate meets certain requirements related to time left on the sentence and the nature of their crime and misconduct, a copy of the new policy shows.

Prisoners with split-life sentences used to be lumped in with those serving life imprisonment sentences and thus were not eligible to earn credits. However, a tally of the credits was still kept in case their sentence was modified. The new corrections policy retroactively applies all of the credits.

An example is a 58-year-old sex offender, Ricky D. Smothers, who had 4,444 credits, or more than 12 years, awarded to him this month because of the policy changes, according to department records.

In September 1997, a Lincoln County judge sentenced Smothers to life in prison with all but 30 years suspended after the offender pleaded guilty to raping and molesting his 4-year-old, mentally disabled stepdaughter near Chandler. The crime was covered by the news media.

Smothers had very few misconduct violations in prison and, after serving 17 years, was released on Dec. 10 under probation, records show.

Another early release, first reported by The Oklahoman, involved Antonio Ray Mason, who in 1994 was sentenced to 35 years in prison for second-degree murder. Mason shot another man with a pistol during a robbery. During his time in prison, Mason committed 25 misconducts, 10 of which were major, “Class-X” misconducts ranging from possession of a cell phone to committing battery on a staff member without injury, department records show.

In August, Mason was given eight and a half years of restored early-release credits and released.

Other prisoners released through restored credits have since been accused of new crimes, according to a sampling of court and jail-roster records checked by Oklahoma Watch in Comanche, Garfield, Grady, Okmulgee, Osage, Roger and Tulsa counties. Thirty-eight accused re-offenders were found.

Aaron J. Rock, 24, was released in April after serving three years of a seven-year sentence for drug, weapons and robbery charges. Rock’s application for parole had been denied by Gov. Fallin in 2012 and by the Pardon and Parole Board in 2013. In October, he pleaded guilty in federal court to a June 14 bank robbery in Sand Springs.

John M. Hensley, 27, was released from prison in April after serving four years of a six-year sentence for assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. In October, he was arrested in Ardmore and charged with attempted rape and various aggravated assault counts.

In April, 30-year-old Desmond La’don Campbell, serving time for attempted kidnapping, exited prison after receiving 362 restored credits, as first reported by the Tulsa World. Corrections records show he had lost the credits for possessing a cellphone or its paraphernalia or posting to a computer site, considered a major violation because of some prisoners’ use of cellphones to coordinate gang activity. His credits were restored under an exception to the restored-credits policy. He was later suspected in at least seven rapes across Tulsa in June. He died on July 8 after a single-car crash on June 29.

There is insufficient data to determine whether the recidivism rate is higher for inmates released so far this year through restored credits than for all inmates released from the prison system. The department says 21 percent of offenders released in fiscal year 2010 returned to the system by the end of fiscal 2013.

It’s also not clear how many inmates have been given an early release under each policy change. The corrections department provided to Oklahoma Watch a list of 1,497 inmates released from prison because of restored credits from March through September but provided no details about each inmate’s credits or misconducts. About 12 percent of the offenders had names common for females; about 10 percent of Oklahoma’s inmate population are women.

Reports of Light Punishment

Sean Wallace, director of a correctional workers group, and some corrections department employees say besides the early releases, corrections officers are being told in many cases not to report offenders or take away early-release credits for misconducts.

“There’s all this pressure on them not to write people up,” said Wallace, who heads Oklahoma Corrections Professionals. “…Even if they do pull the trigger and write someone up, it’s often waived by their superiors.”

Wallace said the policy changes increase the danger level in prisons already facing staffing shortages and make it hard for officers to maintain control.

“I think everybody already feels they’re in a precarious position,” Wallace said.

Watkins, corrections department spokeswoman, said she knows of no directives to staff members to not discipline, or not deny restoring credits to, inmates who commit violations in prisons. She also said early releases are not causing correctional staff to lose control of the prison population.

“I believe the director talked to staff, talked to wardens, talked to facilities and asked to be informed if it was creating any problems,” Watkins said. “I understand (Oklahoma Corrections Professionals) has said there’s been concerns, but I am not aware of any that have been directed to us.”

Sequoyah County Sheriff Ron Lockhart said his office contacted the Corrections Department in late November after a state prisoner being held in the jail to attend a court hearing attacked another jail inmate. Lockhart said his office requested that the prisoner be given a misconduct and have early-release credits taken away as punishment.

“They said, ‘We can’t take his (early-release credits) away. We might be able to re-classify him, but thanks for calling,’” Lockhart said.

The Sequoyah County jail population is higher now than it was before the department pulled state prisoners from the jail, Lockhart said. Offenders released from prison are showing back up in the jails charged with new crimes.

“It’s basically those who are getting let out early and re-offending,” Lockhart said. “Our jail has been near capacity since the DOC started this.”

Prater, the district attorney, said probation and parole officers also are being discouraged from reporting some offenders who violate release conditions to district attorneys.

He said he believes the early-release efforts are circumventing the authority of the Pardon and Parole Board and the parole process. The parole board’s role is to screen inmates for release under parole supervision; inmates released through restored credits won’t have the need to apply for parole.

Some public officials expressed concern about the releases.

Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Slaughterville, said some legislators want to repeal the law allowing prisoners to have early-release credits restored.

“I think the law’s good. You’ve just got to really be careful,” Cleveland said. “I wouldn’t be in favor of it (repeal), but some people are.”

“They were letting out some people they shouldn’t have let out,” Cleveland said.

Asked about the possibility of new legislation, Gov. Fallin said, “If the legislature wants to have a discussion and look at how our current earned credit system works, I think that’s certainly a reasonable conversation we can have … The end goal is to keep the public safe.”

For questions or further information about this story, contact cadcock@oklahomawatch.org.

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