Special report: state prison problems
BY TOM LINDLEY Oklahoma Watch
Sunday, December 05, 2010
12/05/10 at 4:29 AM
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In 1995, long rows of bunk beds replaced the game tables, ironing boards and folding chairs in the day rooms where the women inside the Eddie Warrior Women's Correctional Center in Taft would sit when someone with a message of hope would come to speak.
"I remember when we put in those bunks and were quoted as saying it would be temporary," said Justin Jones, director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. "Here we are in 2010, and they are still there, except now they are stacked two high. In the Department of Corrections, temporary is at least 15 years."
This year also marks the 12th year in the past 13 years that DOC has sought emergency funds from the Legislature to plug an overburdened system. Since 1995, the prison population has grown from 17,983 inmates to 26,720 and state appropriations have increased from $188 million to more than $461 million, despite the fact that DOC has trimmed $76 million from its budget in the past two years.
Assuming an 82 percent staffing level, the department estimates it needs more than $592 million to fund offender growth, increase contract bed per diem rates and restore cuts.
With corrections facing its most severe financial crisis in state history, the question of how much longer the hands on the clock will stand still in the places where Oklahomans go to serve their time is getting a fresh look in the Legislature.
The effort will be led by newly elected House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, who is among those calling for lawmakers to be both tough and smart on crime.
With the Legislature's bill-filing deadline for 2011 less than a week away, Steele said he will push for a series of short-term steps to reduce the strain on the DOC, including:
- Enhancing community sentencing programs and mandatory supervision.
- Limiting the governor's role in the parole process for nonviolent crimes.
- Defining qualifications for parole board members.
- Reviewing mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes.
- Effectively utilizing the re-entry GPS program.
Steele estimated that removing the governor from the parole process for nonviolent offenders alone could save Oklahoma more than $30 million annually.
Steele also said he will seek support for long-term strategies, including entering into an 18-month partnership with the Council of State Governments for Justice Reinvestment, a program that analyzes criminal justice trends to understand what factors are driving the growth in jail and prison populations and develops policy options to control spending and save tax dollars.
Similar measures were proposed three years ago when lawmakers spent more than $800,000 on a prison system audit. While 62 administrative recommendations were put in place, the Legislature so far has failed to take action on any of the biggest potential cost-savers.
"I think public safety is a top priority in our state and as a result, historically, Oklahoma's answer to that has been incarceration," Steele said. "It's been kind of a one-size-fits-all approach. Lawmakers have been reluctant to dig in and address the issue because the consequences are nobody wants to be perceived to be soft on crime."
In addition, supporters of reforms in the criminal justice system that helped make Oklahoma a state of incarceration - it leads the nation in locking up women on a per capita basis and is consistently in the top five for incarcerating men - say those reforms helped reduce Oklahoma's crime rate and improved public safety.
However, the current budget shortfall and the prison overcrowding problem may force lawmakers to focus on whether Oklahoma should join other states in shifting to a more evidence-based model for determining who goes to prison and for how long.
"I am counting on the fact that they (his legislative proposals) will be taken very seriously because I can tell you from a fiscal standpoint we are going to have to do something differently," Steele said. "And I also believe from a human resource standpoint we are going to have to do something different."
Steele said three numbers stand out in the research:
- Sixty-eight percent of female offenders do not pose a threat to society and aren't a danger to public safety.
- The state prison system is operating at 99 percent capacity, which means there is little room for more violent offenders.
- Seventy percent of children with a parent in prison wind up being incarcerated at some point in their lives.
A recent Tulsa World survey also showed strong public support for finding alternatives to incarceration for many nonviolent female offenders and for doing more to help the children they leave behind.
Sen. Brian Bingman, the new Senate president pro tem, said he supports "anything that we can do to keep nonviolent criminals out of prisons."
Bingman, R-Tulsa, also said he wants to learn more about the governor's role in the parole process before making up his mind whether that requirement should continue.
Governor-elect Mary Fallin said she would consider legislation removing the governor from the parole process for nonviolent offenders, adding that for heinous crimes, the governor would have to remain involved.
Fallin also has said that expanding drug and mental health courts would help relieve prison congestion.
Prison officials have maintained for decades that the system is overcrowded and underfunded, in large part because offender growth is not funded until after the fact and often is not annualized.
The latest unfunded mandate from the Legislature is the "85 Percent Rule," which requires persons convicted of certain crimes to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before they can be considered for parole.
Signed into law in 2000, the list of crimes that fall under the 85 Percent Rule has grown from 11 offenses to 24, which Jones said ensures that the average prison stay will steadily increase over time. The number of "85 Percent" offenders already has increased from 53 in December 2000 to 5,086 in December 2009.
"Prison population grows in three ways: the number of people coming in, the length of sentences and the number of people coming out," Jones said. "In all three categories, we're striking out."
As a result, the prison system is operating up to 99.8 percent capacity, and the backlog of prisoners awaiting transport from county jails averages about 1,400 a day.
"When the recession hit, a lot of my peers did something we've been doing since the 1970s; they started double celling," Jones said. "We were already there, so we didn't have that option."
Cuts pose safety risk
At the same time, DOC has had to cut 21.7 percent of its operating budget.
The reductions include a 46 percent reduction in all prison treatment and training programs; staffing levels have been reduced to 71 percent of the authorized capacity, the lowest level since 1995; and employees have been scheduled to take 23 furlough days in the current fiscal year.
The department also eliminated its training academy and its employee education incentive program, closed probation offices and a community corrections center and reduced per diem rates to for-profit prisons and halfway houses and community sentencing funding to counties.
Even DOC's cattle herd got cut by a thousand head.
"With the way the international economy is now, it's cheaper to buy boxed beef in quarters and take it to our meat-packing plant and divide it up," Jones said.
Its shift from ranching to gardening has helped DOC reduce its meal rate for prisoners to $2.22 a day for three meals, down about a quarter.
But Jones is starting to question how low you can go, particularly with the safety risks that staffing cutbacks pose.
"The staff is absolutely amazing, but at the same time you know they are getting tired," he said. "We may be the only state agency that has mandatory overtime. It's not an option. If you are on a fixed post and you are preparing to go home for Thanksgiving dinner, for example, and your relief factor doesn't make it or is sick, you cannot leave that post."
With the number of furlough days scheduled to increase in coming months, Jones said he may end all visitations at state-operated facilities if the Legislature doesn't approve at least part of a $34 million supplemental request.
"It would be a last resort and would depend on whether the staffing pattern continues to drop," Jones said of the likelihood of ending visitations.
As of last week, the staffing level for correctional officers was at 68 percent of the authorized level. In the past decade, Oklahoma has turned to for-profit prisons as a cure-all, but Jones said those options are more limited today because California, Indiana and some federal agencies pay up to $62 a day for higher-security bed space, compared to DOC's fixed $38 rate.
Jones has outsourced pharmaceutical care and inmate telephone operations and is considering outsourcing canteen operations.
Alternatives to prison
The solutions with the most noteworthy impact lie in the details of the 2007 MGT America, Inc. audit, particularly when it comes to nonviolent drug offenders who have never been in treatment prior to coming to prison.
"You also see a lot of women serving short sentences, a year or less," Jones said. "You have to ask yourself if they are only getting that amount of time and are a very low risk for recidivating, were there alternatives in the community and why is this lady coming to prison for 90 days, six months or less than a year?"
The state's budget woes and the steady flow in the prison pipeline also are taking a toll on the front end, says Trent Baggett, acting executive coordinator at the Oklahoma District Attorney's Council.
"In public safety, everything involves someone else," Baggett said. "I appreciate the dilemma everyone is in, but if more goes to corrections to do what they need to do to manage the inmates they have, that means there is less money for other agencies."
District attorneys in Oklahoma, for example, have seen a 20 percent drop in state appropriations, or about $8.5 million in the past 2 1/2 years.
Baggett agrees that the state should take a hard look at why Oklahoma locks up so many women, but he also said the fact that many of them are nonviolent offenders shouldn't dismiss the seriousness of their offenses.
"For a vast majority of those people, it's not the first time they have been in trouble," he said. "Whether the state is affording them every opportunity to fix their problems and address their needs, I can't answer. Probably it isn't. But DA's also often say that basically in Oklahoma people have to break into prison, except for really violent situations."
While he agreed that the problem is too complex to be solved overnight, Steele said much could be learned from neighboring states.
"Kansas and Texas have become fully engaged and taken the bull by the horns on this issue and have begun to truly reform and reinvest their current appropriation for public safety in ways that produce significant and positive outcomes and increase public safety at the same time," Steele said.
Original Print Headline: Familiar problems plague state prisons
Dawn Elrod lies in her bed at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center at Taft. Oklahoma leaders are looking for more effective and less costly ways of treating nonviolent offenders. MIKE SIMONS / Tulsa World
Bunks line a former day room inside the Eddie Warrior Women's Correctional Center. TOM LUKER / For the Tulsa World
Tenisha Little does her hair at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center. MIKE SIMONS / Tulsa World
Suzanna Olivas works out in the gymnasium at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center. MIKE SIMONS / Tulsa World