As Oklahoma’s incarceration rate soared throughout the 1990s, the private prison industry saw a business opportunity.
The Corrections Corporation of America, which today is known as CoreCivic, struck a deal with state officials and opened the Davis Correctional Facility in Holdenville in 1996. By 1998, two new private prisons—the Cimarron Correctional Facility in Cushing and Lawton Correctional Facility—had opened and were housing thousands of state inmates.
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections has depended on these private prisons to relieve overcrowding in public facilities and house some of the state’s most dangerous offenders. But a recent DOC board decision and prison population trends suggest Oklahoma may not have to rely on private prisons forever.
The board voted July 15 to vacate the Cimarron Correctional Facility, a medium-security facility with a rated occupancy of 1,650 inmates. The DOC initially suggested reducing the population in the state’s three private prisons by 500 as a cost-saving measure, but CoreCivic, operator of Cimarron, instead proposed closing the facility.
Once Cimarron closes on Sept. 15, Lawton and Davis will remain as the state’s only private prisons. The two facilities house 3,750 inmates, or 16.7% of Oklahoma’s prison population.
Vacating a private prison would have been much more difficult just two years ago. Though some of the decline may be attributed to a backlog of criminal cases and county jail transfers caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Oklahoma’s prison population has dropped 17.9% since July 2018. Overall prison capacity has also dropped considerably in the same timeframe, from 108% to 88%.
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How private prisons work
The two major players in the private corrections industry, The Geo Group and CoreCivic, have banked on similar business models since the early 1980s.
Looking to cut costs and relieve overcrowding in public facilities, state and federal governments agree to pay the companies a fixed, daily rate per inmate. In exchange, the companies promise to provide inmates with adequate housing, food and medical care. The contracts typically specify that the state must maintain a certain occupancy level, usually between 80% and 100%.
Criminal justice reform advocates have long decried the use of private prisons, saying that their for profit model causes them to cut corners on inmate programs and safety. Critics have also spoken out against the industry’s practice of lobbying political candidates. Private corrections companies have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Oklahoma politicians since 1994.
Numerous academic and government funded studies support the claim that state facilities are better run than private prisons.
A 2016 Department of Justice report found federal private persons were less effective than state-run facilities at reforming inmates and had a host of other problems, including high rates of inmate violence and security deficiencies.
Oklahoma’s private prisons have their own problematic history.
In September 2015, four Cimarron inmates died and several others were hospitalized in the deadliest prison fight in state history. Gang fights and persistent lockdowns have plagued the Lawton Correctional Facility for years.
John Carl, a criminology professor at the University of Oklahoma who has studied the U.S. prison system, said private prisons tend to restrict inmate movement and offer fewer programs than state-run facilities. As lockdowns drag on, tempers rise.
“The easiest thing to do when managing a prison is to just keep it locked down all the time,” Carl said. “But eventually these people get out and they’re hot and they get in fights.”
In one Oklahoma prison, 82% of inmates tested positive for COVID-19. One of them was Robert Lavern.
The path to abolishing private prisons
In 2017, 28 states used private prisons to house state inmates, according to data compiled by The Sentencing Project. Though a growing number of these states are passing legislation that phases out private prisons, the process isn’t quick or easy.
In May 2019, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak signed a bill that will end the state’s use of private prisons by 2022. Nevada housed just 575 inmates in private facilities in 2017.
Five months later, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill barring the state’s corrections department from entering into a new contract with any private corrections company. The law will phase out all private prisons in the state by 2028.
Though legislation aimed at phasing out Oklahoma’s private prisons has not been introduced in the House or Senate, the idea has been kicked around by a few Democratic politicians.
During a September 2018 gubernatorial debate, Drew Edmondson said he would work to reduce the state’s incarceration rate and “wean ourselves from private prisons and the business of incarcerating people for profit.”
Former state senator Connie Johnson, who represented a district in northeast Oklahoma City from 2005 to 2014 and authored several criminal justice reform bills, has remained a vocal opponent of the private prison industry. During her 2018 gubernatorial run, Johnson publicly supported a federal lawsuit that claimed Mary Fallin, Frank Keating and other state leaders who took donations from private prison companies had purposely obstructed criminal justice reform efforts to reduce the state’s prison population. The lawsuit was dismissed.
With most of Oklahoma’s recent criminal justice reform efforts coming from state questions and not the legislature, Johnson said it is unlikely that any bill seeking to phase out private prisons in Oklahoma will gain traction. And because private corrections companies also operate halfway houses and treatment programs, a divorce from the industry is nearly impossible, Johnson said.
“If they go away, they come back as a different animal,” she said. “To think that we’re going to get up from under the influence of private prison interests to me is unrealistic.”
Obstacles to overcome
Even if Oklahoma continues to reduce its prison population, two persistent issues stand in the way of the state phasing out private prison — a lack of corrections officers and limited medium to maximum-security bed space.
Understaffing has plagued the DOC for several years. Corrections officers across the state are working long overtime shifts, with facilities failing to meet minimum staffing recommendations. During a recent overnight shift at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, there were 20 guards looking after 750 inmates, Oklahoma Corrections Professionals executive director Bobby Cleveland said.
“They’re working 16 hours a day, five days a week,” Cleveland said. “That’s a lot of hours for one week, and it gets dangerous from the stress you’re under. If you make one little mistake it could be major.”
Though Oklahoma’s overall prison occupancy rate has dipped to 88%, the state’s six medium and maximum-security male prisons are 94.8% full with 388 beds available. That number will likely rise above capacity as Cimarron’s inmates are transferred.
The state could simultaneously increase bed capacity and reduce its private prison population by leasing and operating a vacant private facility.
The DOC currently leases and operates the North Fork Correctional Facility in Sayre, a medium-security prison owned by CoreCivic which housed inmates from California from 1998 to 2015. The five-year, $37-million lease is set to expire in 2021.
Leasing a prison, as opposed to buying, would provide flexibility if more criminal justice reform efforts are enacted and prove successful, Carl said.
“If you expect your prison population to decline, then it doesn’t make a lot of sense to build a prison,” Carl said. “If it’s a short term solution, then maybe you lease for a short period of time and then you dump it when you can.”
The economic impact
When private prisons close, the communities that surround them suffer.
Private corrections companies tend to build prisons in rural areas with high unemployment, said Daniel Kavish, a criminology professor at Southwestern Oklahoma State University. Five of Oklahoma’s six current and former private prisons are located in cities with less than 10,000 people.
“They’re creating jobs in economically depressed areas, then it makes it politically hard to close them,” Kavish said. “Everything ends up tying into politics.”
The Diamondback Correctional Facility in Watonga, owned and operated by CoreCivic, was the city’s largest employer throughout the late 1990s and 2000s. The 2,000 bed prison housed inmates from Arizona before closing in May 2010.
After the prison’s 300 employees moved away or were left unemployed, the economic impact was immediate. Watonga’s population dropped 46% in two years, from 5,481 in 2009 to 2,967 in 2011. The city lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax revenue from the prison and surrounding businesses.
With the Cimarron Correctional Facility in Cushing set to close in mid September, officials in the city of 7,800 people are anticipating budget woes.
Bruce Johnson, director of the Cushing Economic Development Foundation, said Cimarron paid the city $385,000 in property taxes and $1 million in utility fees in 2019. In addition, about 100 of the prison’s 294 employees that reside in Cushing will either have to transfer or find a new job, Johnson said.
“It’s a tough impact, especially when it comes to a community that’s as small as Cushing,” he said.
Keaton Ross is a 2020 Report for America corps member who covers prison conditions and criminal justice issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Kross@Oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss
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