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Report details Department of Corrections population, budget and operational crisis

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Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Oklahoma.
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OKLAHOMA CITY- An overcrowded prison system, understaffed facilities and a plague of maintenance and infrastructure problems are among the operational and financial issues facing the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

If prison population projections continue to rise, the state is facing a possible $1.9 billion price tag to handle the issues.

In an almost two-hour presentation to the Oklahoma Board of Corrections on Tuesday, ODOC Director Joe Allbaugh and his staff presented a 58-page report on the challenges facing Oklahoma’s criminal justice system, saying the department is almost at its breaking point. 

The report, “Department of Corrections – Fiscal Year 2018 and Beyond,” outlined not only the increasing overpopulation of the state’s prisons but problems arising from a flat budget, an aging prison populace, understaffed facilities and a lower rate of parolees.

“I’m reminded of the Titanic. What you are seeing today is the tip of the iceberg,” said Allbaugh. “At some point, we’re going to be incapable of taking more prisoners in our existing system.”

Using the population numbers from May 31, Oklahoma’s Department of Corrections state prisons were at 109 percent capacity and the total system, which includes community corrections centers and assessment and reception centers, was at 103 percent capacity.

Projections from the Crime and Justice Institute, which served as the starting point for the Governor’s Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force, indicated that Oklahoma’s prison population is expected to grow by 25 percent, or 7,218 inmates, by 2026. Of that growth, 1/4th will be increases in the female prison population, which is expected to grow by 60 percent over the next 10 years.

Oklahoma currently leads the nation in the number of females incarcerated.

In order to meet the projected population increase, the state would need $1.2 billion to build three new prisons that would cost $700 million in operating costs, said Laura Pittman, director of population, programs and strategic planning. 

“Even if the legislature had passed the reforms the Task Force recommended to address additional growth, it would have reduced the projected numbers by only 2 percent,” she said. “It did not affect our current population.”

Although 12 criminal justice reform bills were introduced this legislative session, only three were signed into law and none of the three affected population numbers. The task force recommendations that would have impacted prison populations included revising drug penalties to focus the most severe punishments on higher-level drug offenders, expanding access to incarceration alternatives and reserving the mandatory 85 percent rule for the most violent offenders, to name a few.

The Department of Corrections has taken measures to manage the prison population growth by reducing county jail backups, reducing temporary beds, expanding the use of achievement credits towards release, consolidating work centers and leasing the North Fork Correction Center with the addition of 2,520 medium security male beds.

The DOC is also in the process of consolidating the Oklahoma State Penitentiary and Joseph Harp Correctional Center Mental Health Units, repurposing two community corrections centers and have already eliminated many county jail contracts.

According to the report, however, many inmate needs remain unmet, including substance abuse treatment, cognitive behavioral programming, re-entry services and career tech training.

Despite an increasing population and numerous operational costs, the budget for corrections has remained flat since the 2010 recession, resulting in lower recruitment and retention of staff, deferred or ignored maintenance and repairs to aging facilities and the sacrifice of staff training and inmate programs.

Jason Bryant, warden of the James Crabtree Correctional Center in Helena, told the board at one point, he had 1,400 prisoners with only 54 correctional officers. By reducing temporary beds, they were able to hire 35 additional corrections officers.

Kameron Harvanek, warden at Mack Alford Correctional Center in Stringtown, testified a list of maintenance and repair issues at the center, as well as population control issues when the center was overpopulated with temporary beds. Since reducing the temporary bed population at the center, programming has resumed, but the repair and maintenance issues still remain.

Board member Adam Luck, who also served on the Governor’s Task Force, said he could see no clear path forward.

“This leaves me a little frustrated, but at least we are having the opportunity to talk about this,” he said. “If the only answer is letting more people out on the back end, somehow that just doesn’t seem good enough. Where is the threshold when we say we can’t take any more prisoners?”

Rep. Bobby Cleveland (R-Slaughterville) was the only state lawmaker in attendance at the meeting. He too expressed frustration at the lack of action on the part of the state Legislature on criminal justice reform and budgeting.

“We gotta do more,” he said. “We need people to call in and demand that our leadership do better, to call up and demand that something be done. We at the Capitol have to do a better job.”

The Department of Corrections received increases in the 2018 budget of almost 1 percent, to $486 million. However, in April, the DOC hit a record number of 62,000 individuals in its system, including 26,380 in prison and halfway houses and 1,755 inmates in county jails.

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Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience....

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