Noting a steady decline in Oklahoma’s prison population, state corrections officials started formulating a plan to close the dilapidated William S. Key Correctional Center in Fort Supply in mid-May.
The governor’s office, facility’s warden and senior corrections administrators were aware of the agency’s decision a month later. But Northwest Oklahoma lawmakers and community leaders, who argue losing the prison will be devastating to Woodward County’s economy, say they were left out of the decision making process and learned of the news through rumors and media reports.
“The appearance here is that we’re going to slide this through and not get any input from the public, not get any input from our board or anything like that, we’re just going to do it,” State Rep. Carl Newton, R-Waynoka, said Tuesday afternoon during a Senate Appropriations Committee meeting. “Is that the process we’re going to have from now on?”
The corrections department has the authority to make executive decisions, like closing a prison, without seeking legislative or public input. Because the agency’s oversight board shifted into more of an advisory role last year, no public vote on closing the prison was required. Corrections director Scott Crow said Tuesday that a board committee did meet privately to discuss closing William S. Key and approved of the administration’s plan.
Northwest Oklahoma lawmakers and community members who spoke during Tuesday’s hearing say the decision to close William S. Key was made too quickly and without regard for how it would affect the local economy. Woodward City Manager Shaun Barnett said the prison generates $11,000 per month in utility fees and prisoners often help with public works projects. A significant percentage of Fort Supply’s 350 residents work at the prison, said Sen. Casey Murdock, R-Felt.
“You cannot say that DOC is immune from helping or hurting an economy based on their decisions,” Murdock said. “I think this was a hasty decision.”
Crow said the agency intended to give lawmakers a heads up on the prison’s impending closure but was caught off guard after The Woodward News received a tip and broke the story on June 16. A few hours after the story was published, the corrections departments confirmed their reporting in a press release.
A surge in COVID-19 cases due to the highly contagious delta variant and lagging vaccine uptake is hitting Oklahoma just in time for back to school. And schools can’t require masks unless Gov. Stitt declares another state of emergency.
Interim studies, set to take place from August through November, often help guide future legislation.
“Under my leadership it has never been my goal to slide anything under the legislature at any point, as a matter of fact I’ve tried to be transparent,” Crow said. “But one of the things that is absolutely true is in this situation, as we were trying to finalize and develop the plan to close William S. Key which would have allowed for all the notifications to occur, I contacted a couple of individuals. Where a leak occurred, I’m not sure.”
Tricia Everest, Gov. Kevin Stitt’s secretary of public safety, said the agency’s communications director position is vacant and that may have contributed to the leak and poor rollout of the news.
“It’s clear that while closing the facility is the right and necessary decision, the public announcement and our communication with stakeholders were poorly timed and executed,” Everest said.
Crumbling Infrastructure Questioned
William S. Key, located 15 miles northwest of Woodward, opened in 1989 on the grounds of a former state mental health hospital. Several of the facility’s housing units were constructed in the 1940s and 1950s.
The corrections department says it would cost $35 million to repair the prison’s antiquated heating system, replace moldy ceiling tiles and install a new roof. William S. Key operated on a $15 million budget in 2020.
Crow said conditions at the facility have gotten so bad he’s worried about having to pull prisoners and staff out of the facility.
“In some areas of the facility in respect to the electric system, we were one failure away from a catastrophic situation where we would have to actually evacuate the facility,” Crow said.
In one Oklahoma prison, 82% of inmates tested positive for COVID-19. One of them was Robert Lavern.
The William S. Key Correctional Center, located 12 miles northwest of Woodward in Fort Supply, houses 739 minimum-security prisoners.
In 2018 Oklahoma lawmakers approved a $116 million bond for the corrections department to fund maintenance and repairs at correctional facilities. Of the $116 million, $17 million was earmarked to be spent at William S. Key. None of it was spent there.
Responding to questions from lawmakers as to why William S. Key received zero bond money, Crow said he was not in his director position at that time and could not answer to decisions a previous administration made.
Crow’s remarks frustrated Murdock, who said far too often the state opts not to invest in Northwest Oklahoma.
“Why did we let the deterioration of a facility get this bad if the priority is the safety of inmates and employees?” Murdock said.
Cost Savings Unknown
When announcing the decision to close WIlliam S. Key, corrections officials pointed to the potential savings of shuttering the crumbling facility.
Ashlee Clemons, the corrections department’s chief financial officer, said the agency could save $1.3 to $1.5 million annually after closing the facility, but that could fluctuate depending on how many staff decide to transfer or retire. The agency won’t fight unemployment claims from staff who don’t qualify for retirement and don’t want to transfer.
Clemmons said the agency is working on a plan to pay for the moving costs and other expenses for transferring staff. The nearest correctional facility to Fort Supply is 78 miles away in Alva.
Transferring William S. Key’s 414 remaining prisoners to other minimum-security facilities won’t significantly impact the corrections department’s budget, Crow told lawmakers.
Keaton Ross is a 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