Prison cuts mean idle inmates
BY CARY ASPINWALL World Staff Writer
Sunday, March 27, 2011
3/27/11 at 7:56 AM
HELENA - No one knows yet what taking money from prison work programs to cover shortfalls elsewhere in Oklahoma's Department of Corrections budget will mean for the cows that inmates raise, the corn dogs they fry or the onions they grow at James Crabtree Correctional Center.
But officials say it's likely to result in more idle hands at state prisons - inmates without jobs, not learning skills to take with them when they leave.
Oklahoma's prisons are busting at the seams, with populations growing by several hundred inmates each fiscal year, and no budget increases to cover the costs of housing them. The DOC has faced massive budget cuts for the past two years, closing training academies and community work centers as well as forcing layoffs, early retirement and furloughs for employees.
And last week, instead of approving a supplemental appropriation of $35 million sought by DOC to cover budget shortfalls, state officials passed a law directing the department to take about $5.2 million out of the Oklahoma Correctional Industries operating account.
Oklahoma Correctional Industries is part of the Department of Corrections, but is a self-funded unit that employs and trains prisoners in various trades, creating products and services that put money back into its operating fund and saving taxpayers' money on costs such as feeding and clothing inmates.
Although OCI currently has more than $6 million in its accounts, that money is used to pay salaries for its employees, fund operations and purchase raw materials used by inmates to manufacture goods. Taking more than $5 million from the program will require serious cuts at dozens of prison factories and farms throughout the state, where more than 1,500 inmates work.
The move will reduce the number of corrections employees' upcoming furlough days , which officials worry leave many facilities dangerously understaffed.
"We needed some mechanism to keep furloughs at one day a month," said Justin Jones, director of the Department of Corrections. This was the only option legislators gave them, he said.
In essence, DOC will take money from a self-funding part of the system to cover deficits in other parts of the system. The money taken from OCI's funds will cover deficits in medical expenses and contract beds, meaning DOC won't have to cut as much from its salary fund to cover those costs, Jones said.
Even with this transfer of funds, corrections employees will still take one furlough day each month this fiscal year, but that's much less than the original plan of four days off per month. According to state payroll records, corrections officers make an average of $2,285 per month before taxes, not including overtime, so four unpaid days off can take a sizable chunk of their paycheck.
And it will ultimately leave OCI with about $500,000 in its operating fund, meaning less money to bid on projects, purchase materials and employ inmates.
It's not the first time that corrections officials have taken money from OCI's fund to cover expenses elsewhere, but it's a short-term fix that will hurt its industries in the long run. Taking funds from the program damages its ability to get back to current operating capacity, earn revenue to reinvest in the program and cover future budget shortfalls.
Corrections officials will try to cut where it hurts the least, Jones said.
"I have multiple drafts of plans on my desk," Jones said. "And I'm studying those drafts to do as little harm as necessary for the long-term benefit. I'm not going to make decisions that totally eliminate major operations."
Will they sell off all the herds? Shut down the dairy and switch to powdered milk? Shutter the facilities where inmates make office furniture for companies?
No decisions have been made, but any cuts will require serious belt-tightening throughout OCI and its programs, said Brad Bailey, Agri-Services administrator.
The Agri-Services unit has operations at 10 facilities throughout the state, many designed to save taxpayers money on the cost of feeding inmates. Milk produced at its dairy in McAlester supplies all DOC facilities and is also sold to county jails, bringing in more operating revenue.
At James Crabtree Correctional Center in Helena, the fields are planted with onions, spring wheat and alfalfa hay. The herd is full of just-born calves, grazing on some of the 1,520 acres that inmates work in Alfalfa County.
Very few inmates come to Crabtree with a background in farming, Bailey said. But officials teach them how to plant, spray and irrigate crops and to manage a herd.
The cattle are sold at auction to raise money, which goes back into the OCI operating funds. Once the produce is harvested, it is cleaned and chopped in Crabtree's processing facility. In the winter, prisoners prepare, fry and freeze corn dogs that are shipped to DOC facilities. Inmates producing their own food saves a significant amount of money, Bailey said.
Working in the fields and kitchens, outside the prison walls and rows of razor wire, is a privilege that inmates earn through good behavior. They are required to show up on time, stay on task and work hard during eight-hour days.
It's a different world for the inmates, some of whom never had steady jobs. Officials typically assign each inmate a specific task or part of the garden, and tending to crops can become a kind of contest among the men, Bailey said.
"It gives them some pride in what they're doing," he said. "I truly believe if we can put that work ethic in them, when they get out they can hold a job and keep themselves out of trouble."
One inmate would stand and face east every morning when he arrived at the fields to work.
Bailey wondered if the man was Muslim, turning toward Mecca to pray, perhaps.
No, he explained - it was just the first time in 17 years he'd seen the sun rise without wires blocking the view.
David Parker, the warden at James Crabtree, said his staff focuses on creating a culture and ideology of respect with the inmates, who live in open-room dormitories instead of cells.
"You treat people the way you want to be treated," he said. "Everybody here wants to be treated like human beings."
About 1,000 inmates live at Crabtree, more than 800 of whom are classified as medium-security. But in the past five years, only a handful of inmate-on-inmate assaults have occurred and even fewer assaults on staff, Parker said.
This is remarkable for a facility where, at any given time, the inmate-to-guard ratio is about 70:1, he said.
Long work days keep prisoners busy and make them tired at night, making for safer prisons, said Jones. "And it gives people hope," he added. "They feel like they're producing and contributing."
Where do prisoner salaries go?
After taxes, an inmate's salary first is divided to cover Department of Corrections room and board expenses, court costs, the state's Victims' Compensation Fund and medical expenses incurred.
Prison officials then take another 20 percent to put into an inmate's savings account, which can't be touched until his release.
The remainder goes into the prisoner's spending fund, which he can use to buy items at the canteen - which ultimately puts money back into the Department of Corrections.
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Original Print Headline: Uprooting prison labor
Cary Aspinwall 918-581-8477
Inmate Jason Deaton fixes drip lines on farmland at the James Crabtree Correctional Center in Helena on Thursday. He says conditions are better at Crabtree than other facilities. CORY YOUNG / Tulsa World
An inmate sprays insecticide on the alfalfa hay at the James Crabtree Correctional Center in Helena on Thursday. CORY YOUNG / Tulsa World
Jesse James, an inmate at the James Crabtree Correctional Center in Helena, pulls out finished corndogs in the center's Agri-Services food processing center Thursday. CORY YOUNG / Tulsa World