Oklahoma prisons: Situation normal, all filled up
BY World's Editorials Writers
Monday, January 28, 2013
1/28/13 at 8:10 AM
The Legislature needs to grant Department of Corrections Director Justin Jones the additional $66.7 million he is requesting for prison operations and staff retention for fiscal 2014.
If Oklahoma continues to send DOC more inmates - with a system already at 99.2 percent capacity - Jones will need the money to house and feed inmates and to hang on to corrections officers who - considering working conditions - tend to move on to safer and better paying jobs.
DOC is close to triple-celling or holding inmates in corridors. Sardine-can housing invites federal lawsuits over conditions - something the state knows well, having spent years under a federal judge's control. And there is this: Overcrowded and under-staffed prisons can breed potentially disastrous inmate unrest.
"I don't have any more buildings for space," Jones told a legislative panel. "I don't have any more county jail beds to contract. This is it."
Jones is no bureaucratic whiner. If he says it's bad, it's bad.
Since 2003, the state system has consistently been backed up by 1,000 inmates or more. A large prison population is a product of inmates receiving longer sentences and serving longer terms and a tendency by the state to send offenders to prison rather than looking more diligently for alternatives.
To alleviate overcrowding, Jones has suggested that lawmakers consider contracting with one of two empty 2,100-bed private prisons, in Watonga and Hinton, and place prisoners there.
DOC received $463.7 million this fiscal year. The added $66.7 million would put the budget at $530 million. Yes, Oklahoma, one of the smaller states, is spending a half-billion dollars on incarceration.
About $12.2 million of the money requested would increase employee pay. Only 62 percent of DOC's 5,800 authorized corrections officer spots are filled, so DOC needs to hang on to staff it has. That's easier said than done. Pay is the lowest in the region. Would you do their job for $11.83 an hour (starting wage)? About 30 percent of workers qualify for food stamps and 85 percent qualify for school-lunch program assistance for their kids. The last raise staff received was seven years ago.
Work is under way to reduce the nonviolent offender population and have more inmates supervised in the community. The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board is taking over handling parole requests for nonviolent offenders - that is unless legislators start tinkering with the definition of a nonviolent offender.
Efforts to reduce overcrowding are part of the Justice Reinvestment strategy passed last session, which has tremendous potential if its goals are funded. House Speaker T.W. Shannon should embrace that landmark legislation and make it part of his own agenda. What better legacy than to be the leader who reduced Oklahoma's incarceration rate and reduced prison overcrowding? He'd be a hero.
Justice Reinvestment has worked in other states such as Texas to reduce prison population and still maintain public safety. Oklahoma can take steps to reduce overcrowding or it can expect the alternative - a federal judge taking over.
Original Print Headline: State prisons
Corrections officer Sgt. Paul Blankenship uses a mirror to check the bottom of a transport bus leaving the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center to take prisoners to other locations in the state. Department of Corrections Director Justin Jones told lawmakers Thursday that he needs more money in his budget. SUE OGROCKI / Associated Press