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July 28, 2013

Oklahoma Watch: State senator: Place more max-security inmates in private prisons

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, the oldest prison in the state, has seen its inmate population fall to less than half of what it was five years ago as officials move hundreds of the state’s most dangerous convicts to private prisons.

The decline has been so steep that some state lawmakers, corrections guards and others wonder if “Big Mac,” as it is called, will become home to only Death Row and the execution chamber, or if the prison will eventually be closed.

One by one, cell houses have been shuttered, including several in recent years. As of the last weekly count, 574 inmates were at the facility, compared with close to 1,400 in early 2008.

What's open and closed at the McAlester prison?

Oklahoma Department of Corrections officials say there are no plans to close the prison, the state’s only one that is solely maximum-security. Some inmates, such as those on Death Row and with serious mental illnesses, could not be moved to private prisons for legal, public-policy and cost reasons, they say. But the steadily deteriorating facilities raise questions about the prison’s future.

In a June 11 statement, the DOC said that it plans to keep the penitentiary in operation “for years to come,” although “the goal is to reduce the facility offender population to approximately 600 offenders.” The agency received money in fiscal 2012 to build a new administration building, install a stun fence and move inmates to other facilities. Cell houses were closed because they were “old and not cost-efficient to operate” or posed safety issues, the statement and corrections officials said.

Meanwhile, the state’s prison population keeps rising and is at 98 percent of capacity. County jails are overcrowded with inmates who are supposed to be transferred to the state prisons. Tulsa County has sued the state over the issue. Recent efforts at criminal justice reform haven’t cut the incarceration rate in Oklahoma, which has the fourth highest in the nation.

At a Board of Corrections meeting Friday, it was revealed a board committee had decided to re-open a penitentiary cell unit that was closed earlier this year, to add back 221 beds. The state also will pay for use of 310 additional beds for medium-security inmates at a private prison in Cushing. But the long-term crowding problem remains. Board member Steve Burrage said the department will need to ask the state for $10 million to $15 million in additional funding by early 2014.

Critics of the decline at McAlester say it represents a refusal by political leaders to invest more in a state-run prison system and to further privatize incarceration. They point to private prison companies’ campaign donations to lawmakers and intensive lobbying at the State Capitol.

Sean Wallace, executive director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, said staffing levels are so poor in the prison system that even legislators who used to oppose privatization now see few other options.

“We are starting to wonder if there really is a scheme to put the agency in such a bad situation that we have to privatize it.” Wallace said.

State Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, who chairs the Senate appropriations committee, said the corrections department should look at keeping more maximum-security inmates in private prisons.

The penitentiary has “been a lawsuit waiting to happen for many years” because of its aging buildings, Jolley said.

“Obviously, we’ve been utilizing OSP because of necessity,” he said, adding the older housing units should be shut down, leaving only the unit with Death Row and disciplinary segregation and the mental heath units.

Jolley said the Legislature should seriously consider building a new state-run maximum-security facility, in McAlester or elsewhere.

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